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How to Fast: A Foodie’s Guide to Not Eating

You can’t have this today. Sorry.

And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards he was hungry. – Matthew 4:2

The Scriptures are sometimes amusing in their understatement. Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this is when St. Matthew describes how Jesus was feeling after fasting for forty days. Think about how you feel if you have to skip a meal because you’re out running errands or have a busy day at work.

“Oh my gosh, I’m starving.”

“I was so hungry I thought I was going to die.”

“I could eat a horse right now.”

We have any number of cliches to express the pangs of hunger we feel when our pampered bodies do not get the nourishment they want, right when they want it. And believe me when I say that I do not mention these things as an admonishment. Really, it’s more of a confession.

I’m horrible at fasting. Always have been. Every time I hear someone say that our present crisis requires “more prayer…” I do a fist pump and say “YEAH!” – but then, they inevitably finish with, “…and fasting” – and I become instantly sullen. “Jeeze. Why is that person such an extremist about everything?”

I love food. I’ll admit it. In the world travelling I did in my youth, some of my most profound memories are food-related. The first time I had authentic tacos and fresh, fire-roasted salsa in Mexico. The first time I ate alligator in Louisiana, or had crawfish etoufee at a Cajun grandmother’s kitchen in Ville Platte. Moose stew and Bannock in the little First Nation village of Berens River, Canada. Roasted pork and fresh-grated horseradish in Dürnstein, Austria. Wienerschnitzel en route to Vienna. Incredible white pasta and house wine in Assisi. Churros and Chocolate in San Sebastian, or sauteed Octopus in Santiago de Compostella. Black meat pudding, parsley, potatoes and sauerkraut in Krakow. Smoked sausages and mustard, juice dripping from their crisped casings, purchased from a street cart in Wenceslaus Square in Prague. Real Hungarian Goulash in Budapest. Bahn Mi or pho in the Vietnamese enclaves of Virginia. Any and every time I’ve ever had exquisite Dim Sum.

Suffice to say, food and I are great friends, and I carry around the extra pounds to prove it. My lovely bride and I experienced the first spark in our relationship when she asked if I’d like to join her for lunch at a sushi place in downtown Phoenix. (We were co-workers at the time.) In a manner of speaking, you could say we dined our way into a shared life together, our joy over great food and life fully lived forming the initial basis of our blossoming romance. If there was a film that captured our ethos, it would have perhaps been Big Night, or better yet, Babette’s Feast. And we didn’t just go out. My wife — as anyone who knows her will tell you — is a phenomenal cook. Friends and family never turn down an opportunity to come to our house when Jamie is offering to feed them.

I’m supposed to be writing about fasting, and all I can talk about is eating.

The point is, this Lent, despite (or perhaps because of) my proclivities toward gustatory delight, I’ve decided I really need to get a handle on this whole fasting thing. I know, however much I don’t like it, that it’s part and parcel of any authentic development of the spiritual life. And I already know that what the Church requires of us today isn’t going to cut it. Fasting for two days out of forty is kid stuff. If I want to understand spiritual discipline, I have to take on the traditional Catholic practice of Lenten fasting.

What is the traditional Catholic practice? I’m so glad you asked. We owe it to ourselves to understand how our grandparents (or parents) lived the faith in the not-so-old days. Since there’s no English translation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law available online, I’ll point you to the guidelines on traditional fasting provided by the SSPX, which reference that code.

The upshot is this: fasting in the pre-conciliar Church was serious business. Catholics of just a generation ago had to fast every day of Lent – not just on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Moreover, they had to abstain from meat in all but the main meal of the day every day of Lent. Fasting and complete abstinence was required on all Fridays and Saturdays of Lent, along with Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Ember Days and Holy Saturday until the end of the Easter Vigil Mass. There’s a reason why Sundays have retained their status as the days off from Lenten discipline. Back then, it was the only day of the week when you were allowed to eat three square, delicious meat-filled meals – a far more significant concession than just getting your weekly chocolate fix.

I’m so hungry just thinking about it.

And yet, I want to try this. I talk all the time about the way things were done back then, and why they were better. I believe it, but I still wimp out and follow the current law when it makes things easier. Still, if I’m going to talk the talk, can I walk the walk?

The big question I had was: how do I tackle this? It seems like it should be simple. Just don’t eat, right? But that never works. Hunger is a powerful appetite, and eventually, I always give in. I want to do this right, and to be honest, I had no idea where to begin. So while it may seem counterintuitive based on what I’ve told you so far, the first person I turned to for advice was my wife. Something I’ve learned over the years is that while I was instrumental in bringing her into the Church, she is a far, far better Catholic than I will likely ever be. She outprays me. She out-sacrifices. She is generous where I am selfish. She is joyful where I am grumpy. And she does most of these things so quietly I don’t often realize how far ahead of me she is on the path to sanctification. In a recent conversation, I discovered that she’s been doing traditional Catholic fasting for years.

“Fasting is only hard at first.” She told me. “You have to embrace it. When it starts to hurt, when the pains begin, think about Jesus being crucified. Think about the nail going into His hand. Then ask yourself, ‘Which pain would I prefer? This pain, or that pain?'”


“You have to pray, too.” She continued. “When your stomach starts to rumble, pray a ‘Hail Mary.’ Pray as many as you have to to get through it. If it interrupts your work, so what? This is more important. You have to offer it up, and unite your suffering with His.”

Does it get easier? I asked her.

“It does.” She assured me. “I’ve been doing this for years now, and I almost don’t even notice the hunger anymore.”

Like any man who gets sound (but difficult!) advice from his wife, I did the only thing I could do. I got a second opinion. To the Google! Only there was no weaseling out of it.

“We have this fast too as an ally,” writes St. John Chrysostom.  “and as an assistant in this good intercession.” What he says next is long, but important. Forgive me for citing it at length:

Therefore, as when the winter is over and the summer is appearing, the sailor draws his vessel to the deep; and the soldier burnishes his arms, and makes ready his steed for the battle; and the husbandman sharpens his sickle; and the traveller boldly undertakes a long journey, and the wrestler strips and bares himself for the contest. So too, when the fast makes its appearance, like a kind of spiritual summer, let us as soldiers burnish our weapons; and as husbandmen let us sharpen our sickle; and as sailors let us order our thoughts against the waves of extravagant desires; and as travellers let us set out on the journey towards heaven; and as wrestlers let us strip for the contest. For the believer is at once a husbandman, and a sailor, and a soldier, a wrestler, and a traveller. Hence St. Paul saith, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers. Put on therefore the whole armour of God.” Hast thou observed the wrestler? Hast thou observed the soldier? If thou art a wrestler, it is necessary for thee to engage in the conflict naked. If a soldier, it behoves thee to stand in the battle line armed at all points. How then are both these things possible, to be naked, and yet not naked; to be clothed, and yet not clothed! How? I will tell thee. Divest thyself of worldly business, and thou hast become a wrestler. Put on the spiritual armour, and thou hast become a soldier. Strip thyself of worldly cares, for the season is one of wrestling. Clothe thyself with the spiritual armour, for we have a heavy warfare to wage with demons. Therefore also it is needful we should be naked, so as to offer nothing that the devil may take hold of, while he is wrestling with us; and to be fully armed at all points, so as on no side to receive a deadly blow. Cultivate thy soul. Cut away the thorns. Sow the word of godliness. Propagate and nurse with much care the fair plants of divine wisdom, and thou hast become a husbandman. And Paul will say to thee, “The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits. He too himself practised this art. Therefore writing to the Corinthians, he said, “I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” Sharpen thy sickle, which thou hast blunted through gluttony–sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven; rugged and narrow as it is, lay hold of it, and journey on. And how mayest thou be able to do these things? By subduing thy body, and bringing it into subjection. For when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance. Keep down the waves of inordinate desires. Repel the tempest of evil thoughts. Preserve the bark; display much skill, and thou hast become a pilot. But we shall have the fast for a groundwork and instructor in all these things.

When the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance. Hmm. Sounds like trying to get into my old pants. And if I can’t do that, how the heck am I going to get through the narrow gate to heaven? St. John Chrysostom adds more about the type of fast to which he is referring — and the dangers of fasting if done improperly:

I speak not, indeed, of such a fast as most persons keep, but of real fasting; not merely an abstinence from meats; but from sins too. For the nature of a fast is such, that it does not suffice to deliver those who practice it, unless it be done according to a suitable law. “For the wrestler,” it is said, “is not crowned unless he strive lawfully.” To the end then, that when we have gone through the labour of fasting, we forfeit not the crown of fasting, we should understand how, and after what manner, it is necessary to conduct this business; since that Pharisee also fasted, but afterwards when down empty, and destitute of the fruit of fasting. The Publican fasted not; and yet he was accepted in preference to him who had fasted; in order that thou mayest learn that fasting is unprofitable, except all other duties follow with it. The Ninevites fasted, and won the favour of God. The Jews fasted too, and profited nothing, nay they departed with blame. Since then the danger in fasting is so great to those who do not know how they ought to fast, we should learn the laws of this exercise, in order that we may not “run uncertainly,” nor “beat the air,” nor while we are fighting contend with a shadow. Fasting is a medicine; but a medicine, though it be never so profitable, becomes frequently useless owing to the unskillfulness of him who employs it. For it is necessary to know, moreover, the time when it should be applied, and the requisite quantity of it; and the temperament of body that admits it; and the nature of the country, and the season of the year; and the corresponding diet; as well as varous other particulars; any of which, if one overlooks, he will mar all the rest that have been named. Now if, when the body needs healing, such exactness is required on our part, much more ought we, when our care is about the soul, and we seek to heal the distempers of the mind, to look, and to search into every particular with the utmost accuracy.

I have said these things, not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honour fasting; for the honour of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it. Dost thou fast? Give me proof of it by thy works! Is it said by what kind of works? If thou seest a poor man, take pity on him! If thou seest an enemy, be reconciled to him! If thou seest a friend gaining honour, envy him not! If thou seest a handsome woman, pass her by! For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being pure from rapine and avarice. Let the feet fast, but ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles. Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances, or to busy themselves with strange beauties. For looking is the food of the eyes, but if this be such as is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul; but if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting. For it would be among things the most absurd to abstain from lawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to touch even what is forbidden. Dost thou not eat flesh? Feed not upon lasciviousness by means of the eyes. Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies. “Thou shalt not receive a false report,” it says.

This is, my searching has informed me, the most commonly-cited saintly advice on fasting. No doubt, there is more wisdom and advice from other saints and doctors of the Church. But it seems that the golden-tongued Chrysostom, as his title would imply, said it best.

So the only thing for it is to take it head on. I’ve got some practical coping strategies I’m going to use to help me. I’ve been a fan of “bulletproof coffee” for a while, and it helps me curb hunger for hours without eating solid food. I also know that too much caffeine turns me into a jittery munch monster, so easy does it on that. I know from experience that a low carb, high fat diet aids exponentially in general satiety (the feeling of being full) and with fasting. When you eat more fat, you get hungry less often. I also know from experience that when you eat things that like refined grains, sugars, and simple carbs, you get a blood glucose spike and a corresponding insulin dump, which makes you ravenously hungry, even shaky from low blood sugar. Your sugar levels then need to be brought back up, so you eat again to fix it. Rinse. Repeat. These are the pitfalls I’m going to watch out for.

But if an understanding of our biology helps us to fast more successfully, it’s still fasting. The point of fasting isn’t that we can make it easy. It’s supposed to be hard. That’s the part the purifies.

Most of us are bad at doing things that make us uncomfortable. I certainly am. I guess it’s time I got over it.

If I’m not to embarrassed by the results, I might even follow up to tell you how it went.

43 thoughts on “How to Fast: A Foodie’s Guide to Not Eating”

  1. My family is also going to try the 1917 style fast, along with a added restriction of no more than 10 oz of food at meals. It’s a local rule from 1914 that we’re throwing in to help portion control. We are foodies too, so we’ll see how this goes!

  2. Can someone clarify something for me? Steve writes: “Total fast and abstinence was required on all Fridays and Saturdays of Lent, along with Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Ember Days and Holy Saturday until the end of the Easter Vigil Mass.”
    What does total fasting mean? Does that mean no food whatsoever on those days?

    • I phrased this badly. It should have read, “Fasting and complete abstinence,” as opposed to fasting and PARTIAL abstinence.

      With fasting and partial abstinence, you can eat meat at the main meal of the day, while still having two small meatless meals that do not equal the full meal.

      With fasting and COMPLETE abstinence, the portion sizes remain the same, but no meat is allowed.

      I’ll fix that phrase in the post.

  3. Sick to your stomach? dizzy? weak? – THAT is the point, like my mom used to say, its penance!

    Be sure to include the proper intentions and offer sacrifice through the merits of Christ, as nothing does us any good but through Christ.

  4. I’ve always what is considered a full meal. When I read the old laws from my FSSP calendar it states, “One full meal, with to smaller that do not add up to a full meal. No eating between.” But what is a full meal?

    • It’s a fair question. I think common sense governs here. It’s not a stop at every station at Golden Corral. It’s probably more like what you’d eat at one meal on a regular, daily basis.

      Whether it excludes second helpings, or unduly large portion sizes, I don’t know. Fasting for part of the day only to make it up with gluttony at the main meal, though, seems counterproductive.

      • Steve, you just gave me a hugh belly laugh with this..”It’s not a stop at every station at Golden Corral.” You have to admit those stations are very good no matter if meats, salads, fresh baked breads or desserts.

      • You’re a good man, Steve.

        It is interesting to note that one main reason we suffer from so much effeminacy is that we have abandoned the rigorist strictures of fast and abstinence in favor of anthropocentric laxity.

        Look around the Shadow Church and observe just how abundant are the epicene ecclesiastics and that is because we have broken an Iron Law *;

        A decrease in mortification ineluctably leads to an increase in effeminacy.

        OK, IANS made-up that Iron Law but it is true as was shown by the great Dom Prosper Gueranger in his ” The Liturgical Year.”

        …It was with this intention that Pope Benedict XIV. alarmed at the excessive facility wherewith dispensations were then obtained, renewed, by a solemn dated June 10, 1745, the prohibition of eating fish and meat, at the same meal, on fasting days.

        The same Pope, whose spirit of moderation has never been called in question, had no sooner ascended the papal throne, than he addressed an encyclical letter to the bishops of the Catholic world, expressing his heartfelt grief at seeing the great relaxation that was introduced among the faithful by indiscreet and unnecessary dispensations. The letter is dated May 30, 1741.

        We extract from it the following passage:

        ‘The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe. *

        More than a hundred years have elapsed since this solemn warning of the Vicar of Christ was given to the world; and during that time, the relaxation he inveighed against has gone on gradually increasing. How few Christians do we meet who are strict observers of Lent, even in its present mild form!

        And must there not result from this ever-growing spirit of immortification, a general effeminacy of character, which will lead, at last, to frightful social disorders?

        The sad predictions of Pope Benedict XIV. are but too truly verified. Those nations, among whose people the spirit and practice of penance are extinct, are heaping against themselves the wrath of God, and provoking His justice to destroy them by one or other of these scourges – civil discord, or conquest. In our own country there is an inconsistency, which must strike every thinking mind: the observance of the Lord’s day, on the one side; the national inobservance of days of penance and fasting, on the other. The first is admirable, and, if we except puritanical extravagances, bespeaks a deep-rooted sense of religion; but the second is one of the worst presages for the future. The word of God is unmistakable: unless we do penance, we shall perish.

        But if our ease-loving and sensual generation were to return, like the Ninivites, to the long-neglected way of penance and expiation, who knows but that the arm of God, which is already raised to strike us, may give us blessing and not chastisement?

  5. Fasting for 40 days is pretty hardcore. I always was exempt for medical reasons and can’t imagine not eating. Now I am “post-food” on a feeding tube which is somehow easier in my mind than being able to eat but only one meal a day

  6. Our pastor mentioned at Mass Sunday, that just because one reaches the age of 59, one doesn’t HAVE to stop fasting. Especially if one is in good health. So, I am putting fasting back into my Lenten routine after years of thinking that since age excuses me, I no longer have to do it. But, I don’t plan to do the hardcore. Just Wednesdays and Fridays.

  7. What is with that leaving-the-leaves-on-the-carrot thing? I hate that. It’s a fricken carrot. It’s just a carrot. I hate foodies.

  8. Steve,

    It might be appropriate to mention the rule about 1st Class feast days as well. We are relieved from the requirement on these days. For example: Feb 22nd (Monday) this year is the Chair of St. Peter. So for FSSP parishes, you may eat whatever you want.

      • Feb 22 – Chair of St. Peter (FSSP only as far as I know).
        Mar 19 – St. Joseph Spouse of the BVM

        None of this, of course, applies to Holy Week, which are all 1st class feast days.

        I will ask my pastor where I can find a link to where this is allowed, but this is what we do at our parish.

        • One other 1st class feast that usually falls during Lent is the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin on March 25. It will not affect this year’s Lent, as March 25 is Good Friday this year, so the feast is transferred to the Monday after Low Sunday, which is April 4 this year.

          And you are correct that the Chair of St. Peter is only a 1st class feast for the FSSP (via indult); for the rest of the Church it is only a 2nd class feast.

  9. I enjoyed this very much, Steve. Thank you. On Sunday, my family and I watched the movie “Fatso” with Dom Deluise and Anne Bancroft in anticipation of Lent. If you havent seen it, do check it out. It actually is a very Catholic movie. As someone who for many yeats had personally struggled with a severe eating disorder, I could give you a few pointers. He-he. Nowadays, I abstain from the fullness of the Lenten fast lest it stir up any sleeping demons. There are some for whom fasting just isn’t a good idea…but there are many other practices one can follow, thanks be to God! Whatever it is that we do, it must be so that it brings us closer in communion with our Lord, Jesus Christ. A blessed Lent to all!

  10. Nicely done, Steve. Our family has found over the years that fasting more seriously during Lent makes the feasts that follow all the more the more poignant. One yearns for Easter in a much more visceral way and then one’s celebration is so much more satisfying and joyful.

    Here is a wonderful quote from The Physiology of Taste by Jean-Anthelme Billat-Savarin:

    “A strict observance of Lent made possible a pleasure which is unknown to us now, that of ‘un-Lenting’ at breakfast on Easter Day. If we look into the matter closely, we find that the basic elements of our pleasures are difficulty, privation, and the desire for enjoyment. All these came together in the act of breaking abstinence, and I have seen two of my great-uncles, both serious, sober men, half swoon with joy when they saw the first slice cut from a ham, or a paté disembowelled, on Easter Day. Now, degenerate race that we are, we could never stand up to such powerful sensations!”

      • Yes, the same fellow and I’m pleased that you appreciated it. The dynamic he describes is from a day in which, in addition to the fasting, there was no consumption of meat all through Lent — but he laments the creeping relaxation of that fasting and abstinence even by the time he wrote.

  11. Muslims fast for the whole month of Ramadan and are not even allowed to drink water until sunset. Roman Catholics have it too easy.

    • This is a bit deceptive for travelers (road trip!!!) can eat and drink during the day and Mahometans can eat meats and sweets in large amounts after sundown.

      Did you know that an insane Mahometan is not required to fast/abstain during the day?

      Tis’ true which, to IANS, leaves an easy out for the vast majority of Mahometans 🙂

      • You pretty much made my point above for me …and the insanity plea is well founded when you consider the 1,400 years of inbreeding. Seems all the familial foolish times screws up the brain matter. The kids I dealt with made me feel it was the closest in this life that I would ever experience being around Neanderthals.

    • Indeed they do fast for the month…having taught boys at a turk muslim charter school, I can vouch at what happens when you make students fast. All I got was kids coming up to me, “My stomach hurts, I can’t study..can I go back to the dorm and lay down?”…all day long…everyday. I concluded after that month that this was one of the dumbest things you could do to teenage boys. Having had three teen sons at one time, boys practically need to drag a frig with them everywhere.
      Further the turk boys breath smelled to high was horrific and not one kid during that month could even study, learn or do their work. So I question the benefit of this especially with growing boys. As for it helping them out on a spiritual level, I saw no difference in behavior as they continued to steal, to cheat, to fight even after their fast had ended. in fact, it was almost as if fasting pushed them into new territories of not behaving in any good fashion, hardly spiritual!

    • Be Careful; And notice the element of spiritual pride there mixed with a disdain for those who are not Muslim. It’s most often a Pharisee fast with gluttony at sunset and sunrise.

      There’s also an element of unreasoning.
      Muslims in Northern Latitudes have a much much shorter time of fast between sunrise and sunset then those in Southern Latitudes.
      -No critical thinking is applied-

      • During my first (and unsuccessful) stint at university in the mid 80s, I lived in the only on-campus residence where students cooked their own food. This meant we had quite a few Malaysian Muslim foreign students (this was in Australia) who understandably didn’t want to submit themselves to the dietary options at the catered residences.

        It was my first experience of Ramadan, which I had previously been unaware of. Each night after sundown, the dining area would fill up with a large contingent of Malaysians, eating pretty well indeed and enjoying themselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it didn’t exactly strike me as penitential. Rather, it seemed like a pretty neat deal: yes, refrain from eating all day, then feast on good food.

  12. Interestingly, hundreds of years ago people had no choice but to fast or at least partially fast this time of year, late winter and early spring. Think about it: if it was a poor crop brought in at the Fall harvest, by February you were running out of food. Even the livestock were getting thin, not enough hay in the barn. Rationing was common, because you were months away from when the first fruits and Vegetables sprouted. I’m guessing the austere fasting in the Church during Lent then was not way too difficult, because you didn’t have much food left anyway!

  13. In looking over the SSPX guidelines on traditional fasting, I saw a link to Archbishop Lefebvre’s sermon on fasting and abstinence. I recommend all to read it. It may be the evening of Ash Wednesday, but I’m doing it the old fashioned way.

  14. As a lifelong failed English major, I want to congratulate you.. Great image!

    “We must respond with prayer–”
    “Go on wit it!”
    “..and fasting.”
    “Nuhhhhhh” ::Looks defensively at priest and then lovingly at post-Mass box of donuts::

  15. If fasting isn’t hard, you aren’t doing it right. A big part of the struggle is psychological: force of habit, social pressure, etc. Choose the normal meal time to do something that takes your mind off food. Do chores or run errands. And never forget that every hunger pang can be a weapon that does real harm to the enemy. I find that very sustaining.

  16. Thanks, this is very helpful. I’ve been a Catholic for about 4 years, and have barely fasted in that time except on the days when you have to. It can be harder to do when nobody talks about it (and of course, at most NO parishes, few people fast even on AW or GF, or know that they have to).

    More like this, please!

  17. Can someone help me understand what feria and ember days mean in the context of Lent? For example, I see on the FSSP calendar that this week there are ember days (like today, Wednesday, and Friday and Sat) and then there are feria days. What are the obligations on those different days?
    Thank you


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