Fasting versus dieting: Uniting the two for a strong body and soul

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Intermittent fasting has become a popular way to lose weight, but for Catholics, fasting has much deeper meaning and larger goal. While we diet to have a healthier body and physical life, we fast to have a healthier soul and spiritual life. Yet over the years, many Catholics have fallen away from fasting.

What was once an essential part of being Catholic and was practiced throughout the year on Wednesdays and Fridays morphed into an obligation only for certain days during Lent. If we’re focusing on improving our physical and spiritual health this year, we can make friends of fasting and dieting.

The first step is to understand the difference between fasting and dieting. With social media abuzz about how intermittent fasting can help people to lose weight and become healthier, it can be hard to focus our fasting on what we should be focusing it on. The difference comes down to purpose and pleasure.

Dieting is an attempt to be less gluttonous about food in order to lose weight, but it isn’t about shunning the pleasure of food. In fact, with dieting, it can be important to ensure you enjoy the healthier foods you are eating so that you don’t easily fall back into eating the unhealthy (but deliciously full of sugar) foods that you are trying to avoid.

Fasting, however, involves a complete lack of enjoyment of the small amount of food you’re eating. Think bread and water, salad without the dressing, coffee without that French vanilla creamer. You shouldn’t be focused on losing weight, but rather on denying yourself and getting through the discomfort of hunger with prayer. Dieting allows your body to lose calories. Fasting allows your soul to find God.

In an article for Catholic ExchangePatti Maguire Armstrong sums up the difference between the two by noting that with a diet, it’s about our appearance and compliments, but with fasting we have “the power to defeat evil, strengthen our prayers, and draw us closer to God.”

“When we fast, we follow the example of Jesus who fasted for 40 days in the desert before he began his public ministry,” she wrote. “Contemplate that a moment. Jesus, who is the second person in the Trinity, utilized the power of fasting. Before going public, he sacrificed his hunger for the power he understood it would bring.”

That’s powerful stuff. Jesus himself used fasting for the power it would bring him. The saints did the same. St. Basil the Great called fasting “the weapon of protection against demons.” If the saints and Jesus understood the power of fasting, then Catholics need to follow suit and voluntarily fast throughout the year for good of souls.

“[Fasting is] creating an empty space for God to fill,” said Msgr. Charles M. Murphy, author of The Spirituality of Fasting: Rediscovering a Christian Practice (Ave Maria Press, 2010). “It’s also penitential; it’s an expression of our desire to be converted from sin and selfishness and to remove the effects of sin in our life.”

Despite the temptation to use fasting as a diet, we can instead unite the two in our lives and strengthen both our bodies and our souls. There is nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight and in fact, Catholics should refrain from overeating and stick to a healthy diet and proper exercise as our doctors advise.

We can spend our day-to-day lives sticking to a healthy, yet enjoyable diet and eating the more indulgent foods on special occasions and celebrations. Alongside this, we can add in days of fasting in order to build our spiritual strength. Start small if you need to, but always use the void left by the lack of food as an opportunity to pray. Offer up the discomfort of fasting for the souls of others and for your special intentions.

Food is a powerful motivator and can be a tool that we use to improve ourselves. Fasting can be our weapon of spiritual warfare. Dieting creates a stronger body, but it is fasting that creates a stronger soul. It’s time to do away with any bad eating habits such as stress eating or binge eating, and welcome fasting back into the essential parts of our faith. It won’t be easy, but it shouldn’t be.

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