What If You Can’t Fast?

Obviously, I think fasting is a good thing. I wouldn’t have started this blog if I did not believe fasting was worthwhile and could be a meaningful, enriching activity. It is not for everyone, however. The Church has always been clear that those who are sick, very young, very old, or are facing the physical demands of pregnancy and breastfeeding are not required to fast. In the past few years, however, I have become aware of just how many grey areas and tricky situations real people have to navigate when deciding whether and in what way to observe the fast. There are people who have multiple food allergies or medical conditions requiring specialized diets. Sometimes adding another set of restrictions on top of the ones they already have is just more than they can handle. There are those who are struggling or have struggled with eating disorders, in which case fasting might easily become an excuse for anorexia to disguise itself as righteousness and is probably better avoided. There are principled vegans, for whom the fast could easily feel like any other time, since they keep to the fasting rules year round. There are Orthodox Christians living in households with those who are not Orthodox, who have to balance their desire to fast with the need to preserve harmony in their families. I don’t for a moment want to suggest that those who are unable to keep the full fast need to do anything special to make up for that fact. God will not love you more if you do. Humility and love count for more than all the fasting in the world. However, I also know from experience that sometimes when one does not fast from food, it can be hard not to feel left out, as if one has “missed” Great Lent. For anyone who feels that way, here are a few thoughts on simple ways to make the fast feel like time “set apart,” even when you can’t follow all of the rules.

1. Pick specific foods to allow, rather than ignoring the rules altogether. When I was pregnant and breastfeeding I generally tried to eat vegan meals together with my husband at dinner time, but kept a few specific non-fasting foods (in my case usually eggs, milk, and yogurt) in the house that I could eat at other times during the day. The reverse might work if your spouse is not Orthodox. You could keep the fasting rules during the day, but eat whatever the rest of the family is eating in the evening.

2. Cut out treats. Maybe you are in a position where giving up all dairy products is too difficult, but that doesn’t mean you have to eat ice cream and milk chocolate. Maybe your diet is already so complicated due to food allergies that you just can’t handle cutting out one more thing, but you have a non-nutritional indulgence you can cut out, like coffee or soda.

3. Limit when and/or how much you eat. The point is certainly not to starve yourself, but it is possible to be more disciplined without necessarily consuming less calories. Many people eat only one or two meals a day on weekdays during Great Lent and cut out snacking entirely. It’s easier than it sounds, and worth trying sometime, but if your health, schedule, or something about this moment in your life makes it hard for you not to eat between meals, there are still ways to impose a little extra discipline. If, like me, you are prone to “grazing” throughout the day, you might limit yourself to set snack times when you commit to sitting down and eating mindfully. Alternatively, you could limit the amount and type of snacks rather than the timing. Buying single-serving snacks or portioning things in small snack bags or containers and limiting yourself to one portion per day is a great way to practice simplicity. You have healthy snacks from which to choose, but you don’t have to waste time thinking about what or how much to eat.

4. Give up some variety. Eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day. Set a menu and stick to it rather than spending time thinking about what you “feel like” eating.

5. Fast from destructive thoughts about food and eating. Consciously let go of or ignore thoughts that tie your sense of self-worth or well-being to what you eat. Whether you tend to think negatively about your weight and appearance, worry obsessively over pesticides, sugar, and whether going gluten-free would fix your child’s eczema, or feel like you must be a good person because you gave your kids organic kale chips for a snack, let it go. There is a place for making good decisions about food, but not at the expense of peace. You are not what you eat, and there is no better time than Lent to remember that.

6. Fast from distractions. Many people give up television, reading fiction, listening to the radio, participating in social media, or other activities that they find enjoyable but distracting during Lent. If you are not able to keep the food rules during the fast, you can still make it a time for quietness and prayer.

7. Focus on prayer and almsgiving. The Church Fathers were pretty clear that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving where meant to go together. Many of us who keep the fasting part struggle with prayer and all but leave out almsgiving. Maybe those who are not fasting from food can pick up a little of our communal slack in the other areas.

What about you? If you face challenges that make fasting difficult or impossible, how do you observe Great Lent?