The Orthodox fasting seasons grant us an opportunity to enrich our spiritual lives through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. When it comes to fasting and modifying our typical food choices, I understand, as a registered dietitian and a nutrition counselor, that this can sometimes be confusing, daunting, or difficult. Yes, fasting should be a struggle, but one of a
spiritual nature, not a struggle at the grocery store or in the kitchen! However, when we approach the fast in the proper spirit, we can transform any preoccupation with diet into a simplified and balanced approach to eating.
In the Orthodox Church, fasting is a spiritual discipline that has been passed down through Holy Tradition and includes limiting certain types of food and the amount of food eaten. This discipline is not a legalistic set of dietary rules, but a tool to help us to conquer the passions of the flesh. As we sing during the first week of Great Lent, “while fasting from food, let us also
fast from our passions.” General guidelines of foods to abstain from are as follows:
● First, meat
● Then, dairy and eggs
● Next, fish with a backbone
● Next, oils* and alcohol
*Some practices interpret this as only olive oil, while some expand to all vegetable oils. In general, we are also called to eat less, and spend less time and money on food, though no specific guidelines are given.
Note: Special dispensation is often given to those for whom fasting may not be appropriate, such as those with certain health conditions or other life circumstances. You may wish to work with your parish priest or spiritual father to determine a modified fasting plan.
Nourishment for the Soul
During these fasting seasons, the Church provides rich spiritual nourishment through penitential church services, beautiful hymns and prayers, and more opportunities to receive the Holy Sacraments. Fasting is a way to empty ourselves of the concerns of this world so we can fill ourselves with God.
We eat every day to fill ourselves, too, but Lent is a time to move food away from center stage and into the background, where it can quietly and gently nourish us, allowing our focus to shift towards something greater. However, if not approached with this intention, fasting is reduced to a distraction and a nuisance.
“In all of our deeds God looks at the intention, whether we do it for His sake, or for the sake of some other intention.” – St. Maximos the Confessor
Nourishment for the Body
Ok, so we are ready to use fasting as a tool to grow closer to God and have started removing animal products from our diet — now what? Here are some tips to nourish the body while you focus on nourishing the soul:
1. Focus on balance.
Let’s go back to basics and break it down by food groups. In general, each food group boasts its own set of nutrients, and when we can include them all throughout the day, or even in a single meal, we create nutritional balance with ease. Try to include each of the following at a meal:
When we think of protein, we often think of meat; however, there are plenty of plant foods high in protein as well! These include: beans & lentils, nuts & nut butters, seeds, edamame, tofu, tempeh, peas, veggie burgers, and nutritional yeast (and more)!
Carbohydrates like pasta and bread often get a bad rep, but our body runs on carbs! Ideas include: rice, pasta, bread, quinoa, cereal, oatmeal, popcorn, granola, crackers, tortillas, farro, barley, orzo, couscous, amaranth, and bulgur. Whole grains will give you more fiber and more nutrients, so try to choose those more often than refined grains.
Fruits & Vegetables
One of my most frequent recommendations to my clients is to boost their intake of fruits and veggies. Sometimes the answer to a more healthful eating pattern is boring like that. The nutritional benefit comes from fresh, frozen, canned, & dried…include them any way you can!
Fat offers flavor and satiety to our meals and is an essential part of a healthy diet. Examples include: olive oil and other oils (if including), nuts & nut butters, seeds, avocados, coconut and coconut milk, and dark chocolate. Unsaturated fats (compared to saturated fats and trans fats) are the most beneficial for our health. With the exception of coconut and dark chocolate, this list includes all sources of unsaturated fats. Not every meal has to include all four of the above food groups, but if you can come up with a few Lenten go-to meals that include all four parts, you’ve got a solid start!
2. Choose Whole Foods
If we are used to including meat and dairy in most meals and snacks, the Lenten dietary shift can seem sudden. Overnight, our options seem to disappear! Avoid the temptation to replace your favorite non-fasting foods with less nutritious vegan substitutes (i.e. dairy-free creamer or Oreos) or to recreate your favorite non-fasting foods with decadent alternatives (i.e. rich
chocolate cake made with egg replacement or “impossible” meat-substitute products made with heme that taste just like their real meat counterparts). The Church’s guidelines are an invitation to include more plant foods in our diet (see tip #1). Focus on eating foods closest to their natural state, the way God created them.
3. Keep it simple.
During Lent, it is OK to be bored by our menu from time to time. Narrowing down our food choice is not designed to make eating more difficult, but less so, by opening up more space in our day for God. Aim for simplicity in your eating.
“Fasting of the body is food for the soul.” – St. John Chrysostom
By implementing some of these nutrition principles, we can observe the fast without sacrificing nutritional adequacy, simplify our approach to meal preparation in our pursuit of spiritual nourishment, and embrace the practice of fasting freely and fully, unlocking the deepest spiritual benefits of this ancient Christian discipline.
May God grant you strength!