It turns out the Church's Lenten requirements aren't just good for your soul but for your body, too!
During Lent, the Church recommends that we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstain from meat every Friday. But does this recommendation have any health risks, or is it beneficial?
First, we should realize there is a difference between fasting and abstinence.
The benefits of fasting
The fasting mandated by the Catholic Church consists of eating one meal and two snacks not equaling a full meal, and only applies to healthy people over 18 and under 60 years of age, and only on two days of the year — Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
There are some who opt for a more radical fast, perhaps consisting of bread and water on more days than those required, as an expression of their devotion. This practice is the continuation of an ancient tradition and is present in almost all religions.
Moses, and Jesus himself, fasted for 40 days. The Muslim observance of Ramadan forbids food and drink during daylight hours for 30 days. Mahatma Gandhi practiced fasting on a regular basis as well.
Medically, we’re considered to be fasting when we take in fewer than 300 calories a day and consume only liquids. When we do a prolonged or intermittent fast as a voluntary and controlled practice, the body begins to consume its reserves, which can be a very healthy practice if it’s done with common sense and prudence under the supervision of a qualified medical professional.
In most Western societies, we eat more than our body really needs. When our body doesn’t have to work as hard to digest, our body switches over to “cleansing.” Some health professionals believe this can help us:
- eliminate toxins
- improve the body’s balance.
- lower cholesterol
- strengthen the immune system
- help with chronic pain and rheumatoid and inflammatory diseases
Prolonged or regular fasting, however, can also pose some problems, so seeking the guidance of a health care professional before, during, and after a radical fast is key to avoiding negative impacts on our health.
The benefits of abstinence from meat
The Church recommends abstaining from meat only on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays in Lent, for people over 14 years of age. Abstinence on Fridays during the rest of the year can be replaced by a work of piety or charity.
In 2015, the World Health Organization issued a report recommending the reduction of the consumption of red meat as a measure to prevent colorectal cancer. This is one of many reports and studies showing that eating too much red meat may be harmful to the heart and can increase the risk of some cancers.
At the same time, meat provides many essential nutrients, including protein, iron, vitamins A and B, iron, zinc, and essential fatty acids. For this reason, if we decide to stop eating meat all together, we should do so with the help of a good nutritionist who can show us what other foods will provide us with the nutrients we need.
Since studies show that reducing our meat consumption can improve our general health, eliminating it from our diet once a week, at least during Lent, and replacing it with vegetables or fish can have a positive effect on our health.