Catholic lent diet
Having a half portion of your favorite foods can make a huge difference in a diet. (Getty Images)
By Ariel Scotti / March 6, 2019 5:00 am

Today is Ash Wednesday, or, as I’ve come to know it, Day 1 of 40 straight days without my favorite foods in the name of thinness.

While most practicing Catholics see this kickoff to the Lenten season as a holy day of prayer, fasting and repentance, it’s also the first day that we’re supposed to “give up” something we love.

When I was little, it was my gameboy. I’d hand my neon green rectangular portal to the Pokémon worlds over to my mom and mope around for five boring weeks — a period that just happened to coincide with New York’s state-wide elementary school testing schedule, but I digress.

Now in my latter 20s, I see a new purpose in Lent. It helps me gear up for the kind of physical shape I want to be in for the summer.

Sure, Ash Wednesday is the first day in which the nearly 1.3 billion faithful across the world abstain from eating meat, followed by Good Friday (the day Jesus allegedly died), and every subsequent Friday within the 40 days until Easter Sunday. A praiseworthy venture.

But for the extremes — people like me who decide to go beyond those basic rules and completely abstain for 40 straight days — it’s the first day that I can’t have a slice of pizza, a bowl of pasta, a bagel, a single chicken finger or any desserts, chips, pretzels or crackers, whatsoever.

For 40. Straight. Days.

But am I setting myself up to fail? Perhaps it’s too difficult to drop each one of those pleasures cold-turkey. And maybe that’s why my grandma instituted the rule that while our household wouldn’t have meat on Fridays, we could, instead, have whatever it was we gave up. Grandma’s game plan was a sound one, according to experts.

“Completely cutting something out [of your diet], it’s a temporary fix; like with the Keto diet,” registered dietician, nutritionist and author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, Dr. Lisa Young, told RealClearLife. “If something is not sustainable — which Keto is not — you do it for the short-term and then you end up eating more of all those things that you’re craving.

“After you give in, you end up going in the opposite direction of where you want to be with your diet,” Dr. Young added. “If you cut out your carbs, you might soon feel like, ‘I can’t do this,’ and you go into a binge cycle. Instead, you want to be mindful of healthy foods versus those that are more fattening and of choosing the right ones.”

Although it’s true that I couldn’t possibly give up spaghetti for the rest of my life, I certainly have been able to do it for 40 days, several times before. But more than just being super-healthy for five weeks, Lent has become a way that I get used to making better decisions when it comes to food so that when I’m finally “allowed” to indulge, I don’t go overboard.

It’s also worth noting that a small, weekly “cheat” during that 960-hour hellscape is essential in the long-run, post-Lent.

“You can go about that in two ways,” Dr. Young advised on trying to cut back. “You could either say, for example, ‘I’m only going to allow myself white pastas at a restaurant and not bring it into the house.’ That way you’re getting a bit of what you want but it’s not always readily available to tempt you.”

Or, you can attempt to be super mindful about what it is that you’re putting into your body that won’t help you achieve your fitness goals and physically cut it in half.

“Having half portions or sharing, so you’re still having it but much less so, will make a difference,” Dr. Young told RCL.

It’s actually been scientifically proven, Dr. Young said, that totally cutting out what it is that you crave from your diet will more often lead to disinhibited binge-eating than not. But falling off the diet wagon doesn’t mean you blew it and should just give up.

“When you’re so restrained you can end up going the other way,” Dr. Young said. “If you score too high on dietary restraints, you’ll eventually binge and give in when you say you’re never having something.

“To get back on track if this happens,” she said, “just do it! Remember that you’re not a failure. Don’t look at the negative and don’t say, ‘I screwed up;’ don’t bemoan yourself. It was a day, a moment, it was a slip and you’re not a failure because of it.”

And although Ash Wednesday is the specific day that starts my particular “diet,” of sorts, there is no one day when any new health journey can begin; regardless of how easy it may be to succumb to the pitfalls of over-indulging on a Wednesday, assuming that the whole week is a wash, so, therefore, “the diet starts on Monday.”

“Being healthy starts when you decide to commitment,” Dr. Young said. “So just go for it.”