Adding and subtracting for Lent

When it comes to healthy eating, I’m not one to weigh and measure every single thing I put on my plate. Nor do I have the patience to constantly track calories. My common sense tells me to avoid crash diets that ask us to eliminate whole food groups, even if they promise to take off ten pounds in one week. And I’ve learned the hard way that putting any item on a forbidden list only makes me suddenly crave it.

For me, taking off weight has required developing sustainable habits I don’t need to think about – at least not too much – once they’re established. And what better time to initiate a new positive habit than during Lent? Some experts say it takes about 30-40 days for a habit to get firmly established, so the time frame is perfect.

In recent years, some people I know have added a new tradition to their annual Lenten discipline. Instead of (or in addition to) giving something up, they approach Lent as a time to “take something on.” This could include anything from daily prayer and meditation to better self-care to a new charitable commitment.

Since Ephesians 4:22-24 tells us to put off the “old self” and put on a “new self,” I’ve begun including both a sacrifice – or “subtraction” – and an “add-on.” That is, I dedicate each Lenten season to acquiring a new positive eating habit as well as ditching a negative one. 

This addition/subtraction process makes sense to me psychologically. Experts agree shedding a habit can be hard unless we replace it with something else. Examples I’ve adopted include replacing salt with herbs and spices, replacing “refined” starches with more fiber-rich whole foods, and replacing sugar- and fat-laden munchies with “legal” snacks.

Over the years, these small tweaks to my eating habits have yielded great long-term benefits. Here are some habits I’ve added and subtracted during the past few Lenten seasons, along with a couple new ideas I will be working on this year:

  • Subtract added sugar. I’ve found that some things – cornbread, applesauce, dry cereal, iced tea – actually taste better when they’re not gunked-up with added sugar. I’ve also become an inveterate label reader because I’ve learned that manufacturers sneak the nefarious substance into all kinds of foods where one wouldn’t expect to find it, from ketchup and peanut butter to fat-free yogurt. Thankfully I’ve discovered “no added sugar” versions of all these things.
  • Add fruits and vegetables. The U.S.D.A. recommends we eat at least 3-5 vegetable and fruit servings per day. I’ve come up with several ways to slip more of these into my diet – adding a small salad to my lunch, adding spinach or other veggies to pasta dishes, replacing soda with a small glass of V-8 juice. See my blog post “Meeting My 3-5 Challenge” (link HERE) for a list of ideas.
  • Subtract added salt. Again, I always check labels – more and more popular brands now offer reduced-sodium versions of their soups, sauce mixes and other products. Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh produce, and less likely to contain salt than canned veggies. Since I’ve begun replacing the added salt called for in many of my recipes with herbs and spices, I’ve found I don’t even miss the salt.
  • Add fiber. One easy way to do this is to substitute whole-grain bread, cereal and pasta for the refined stuff. Other good sources of fiber include raw veggies, avocados, berries, legumes, nuts and seeds. I also don’t peel potatoes, cucumbers or apples.
  • Subtract red meat. Being a Midwesterner raised on a farm, I grew up eating lots of beef and pork. While I don’t plan to eliminate these from my diet – at least not at this time – I have begun to replace some “red-meat” meals each week with fish, chicken, eggs or a plant-based protein such as beans or lentils. 
  • Add healthy snacks. I’ve developed a repertoire of “legal” between-meal nibbles. Best are munchies that help me meet my daily quota of fruits and vegetables, such as fresh fruit chunks and raw veggies with dip. Also good are snacks that have higher protein content and fewer carbs, such as a small dish of sugar-free pudding made with fat-free milk, or snacks high in fiber such as air-popped popcorn.
  • Subtract impulse buys. I’ve found it much easier to avoid eating “junk” if I don’t bring it into the house in the first place. Grocery shopping with a list helps, as does not shopping when I’m hungry. Since the pandemic began, I’ve been ordering groceries online and having them delivered, which makes avoiding impulsive purchases so much easier that I plan to continue shopping this way once the quarantine is over.
  • Add portion control. The “plate method” suggested by the American Diabetes Association is attractive because there’s no weighing, measuring or calorie-counting. (Note: You don’t have to be diabetic to use it.) The plate method involves filling half a nine-inch plate with non-starchy vegetables such as lettuce, broccoli or carrots, one-quarter of the plate with whole grains or starchy vegetables such as corn or potatoes, and one-quarter of the plate with a protein source. For detailed information on the plate method, link HERE and HERE.
Source: Centers for Disease Control

I feel it’s important for me to point out that I didn’t make all these changes at once. Each Lenten season, I’ve made one or two small changes at a time, which means the new habits have been acquired over a period of years. For example, the first year I focused on subtracting added sugar and adding more fruits and veggies on my plate. Since then, I’ve added/subtracted a new habit or two each year. This year I will be working on avoiding impulse buys and using the plate method for better portion control. Baby steps, as my spiritual advisor always liked to say.

The good news: These baby steps really do work. So far, I’m about 25 pounds down from my top weight. Yes, the weight has come off much more slowly than it would have with a crash diet, but the bottom line is that it’s staying off.

Conscious contact

Now that I’ve discovered a reliable way to address my occasional doubts about God’s existence – immerse myself in nature – it’s time for the next step in my spiritual direction journey: Addressing my questions/doubts about a “personal God.”

Matthew 10:29-30 says “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered.” How do I quell my periodic doubts about whether God really cares about me and other people, let alone sparrows? Does God truly have a plan for my life and does God honestly try to communicate directly with me?

With these questions in mind, I’ve dedicated this year’s Lenten season to improving my conscious contact with God. And the logical way to do this is through prayer. 

Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of In All Seasons for All Reasons: Praying Throughout the Year, suggests using Lent as “a time to explore new ways of prayer.”

Among the forms of prayer suggested by Father Martin and my spiritual director, I’d like to focus on the following. While I’ve used some of these prayer techniques off and on for years, I’d like to commit to doing them on a more regular, disciplined basis. Others, such as the “examen” and “lectio divina,” I’ve never tried before and find intriguing.

  • Morning meditation. A time set aside for prayer before I start my day. 
  • Prayers of petition and intercession. Prayer on behalf of myself or others.
  • Prayers of thanksgiving. Expressing gratitude for answered prayers and other blessings.
  • Nature prayer. Encountering God through creation.
  • Writing/journaling. Keeping a journal to record the fruits of prayer, or using writing itself as prayer.
  • Music. Both making and listening to music as a form of prayer and meditation. 
  • Lectio divina. Sacred reading as a prayer method and guide to living.
  • Examen. Prayerful reflection on the events of the day to detect God’s presence and discern God’s direction for my life. 
  • Mindfulness in church. Paying closer attention during church services, and trying not to get distracted by my own random thoughts. 

As I pray, my spiritual director suggested I spend some time listening as well. Say (or write) a prayer, then be silent. Quiet my mind for a few minutes and wait for God’s response. What is God saying to me?