On Ash Wednesday, There's a Science to Making a Successful Lenten Sacrifice

Self-denial is a lot easier if it doesn't immediately follow a binge.

Indians on Fat Tuesday 2

At the heart of the Christian fasting season of Lent, which immediately follows the excesses of Mardi Gras, is an age-old conundrum: Is it easier to abstain from something after one big binge? Unfortunately, Mardi Gras, which is French for “Fat Tuesday,” may not set Lent observers up for success. Scientists say that quitting on a full stomach can actually encourage a mindset that not only sets fasters up for failure — but also to fail in spectacular fashion.

Mardi Gras traditionally marks the last day until Easter that Christians are allowed to regularly indulge in rich foods, meat, alcohol, and sometimes even sex. These days, Lenten fasting traditions are much more varied, but they still follow the same general principle: 40 days of self-denial bring the faithful into closer contact with the divine.

But according to nutrition researchers, self-denial would be a lot easier without the time-honored tradition of preceding a period of fasting and abstinence with a blow-out party full of sweets and booze.

Read about how newborn rabbits came to be exempt from Lenten rules about eating meat on Fridays.

Chocolate king cake from Gracious bakery
King cake, a New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition, doesn't exactly set the stage for 40 days of reverent fasting.

Restrictive Diets Can Trigger Overeating

People who know they are beginning a fast the next day seem to inhabit a unique psychological state. A 2002 study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology showed that an impending diet can drive people to overeat in the day before the diet begins. In that study, researchers told some participants they would begin a restrictive diet the next day, then gave them the opportunity to taste test some food. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they ended up eating significantly more than their counterparts who were told they wouldn’t begin a diet the next day.

“These results confirm that merely planning to go on a diet can trigger overeating in restrained eaters, reflecting the dynamic connection between dieting and overeating,” wrote the study’s authors. The results suggest that the overindulgences of Mardi Gras are more than just a regular party. The king cakes, drinking, and general debauchery are, by design, fueled at least in part by the knowledge that Lent is just over the horizon.

Overindulging in Advance Fosters an Unhealthy Relationship to Food

Over the years, Mardi Gras has morphed into much more than a Christian holiday, as secular pilgrims venture to New Orleans, Mobile, St. Louis, and other US cities to take part in the carnival. And while it’s no party, non-Christians also use Lent as an opportunity to abstain from overindulging in certain habits as an exercise in self-control. Regardless of their motivations, however, Mardi Gras could undermine their aims.

Nutrition experts have observed this phenomenon around New Year’s, too: Before putting down the sweets on January 1, many might be tempted to overindulge in advance — a phenomenon they call the “Last Supper effect.”

Dietician Rebecca McManamon, told The Independent that this notion can encourage an unhealthy attitude toward food, creating a mindset that some foods are “good” and some are “bad.”

“To consider any food to be ‘wholly bad’ may be detrimental,” she said, pointing out that this idea can lead to disordered eating and a negative self-image. “Orthorexia — when obsessing about healthy foods can become all consuming — and deviating from ‘healthy’ foods may cause large amounts of guilt of self-loathing.”

A Binge Before a Diet Can Turn a Minor Slip Into Another Binge

And as far as results go, experts suggest that a binge before a period of abstinence may also create a mindset in which a minor failure to adhere to the diet can quickly turn into an extreme failure. Claudia T. Felty, PhD, RD weighed in on the matter for Health in 2017, when Kim Kardashian was planning to overhaul her diet — and went wild with pizza and ice cream in preparation. She warns that overindulging on something before you stop it altogether can foster an all-or-nothing attitude toward it.

“Over time, you’re going to be around those foods and you’re going to be tempted by them,” said Felty. “When you set them up as foods you binge on now and then never eat again, that binge mentality comes back.”

She also notes that the forbidden nature of the foods you love can make you crave them even more.

So What Should You Do?

For Christians, the answer is pretty straightforward: As a religious observance, Lent has a spiritual purpose, which should make it easier to stick to.

As for non-Christians using Lent as an opportunity to jumpstart healthier eating habits, maybe aim for something more attainable than total abstinence. Some nutritionists recommend a 5:2 rule, in which five days of healthy eating habits earn you two days of junk food. You could also just focus on accepting yourself as you are.