We are again at the beginning of a fast period. This is intended to be a time of increased prayer, peacefulness and focus on fighting the passions. While each Orthodox Jurisdiction has slightly different rules about what is spiritually beneficial to eat, the focus is on simplicity. Many Orthodox Christians simply adopt a vegan diet during these times. But are all vegan foods created equal? Is it possible to keep the letter of the fast, and still unwittingly set ourselves and our families up for increased failure in effectively fighting the passions?
Unfortunately, the answer is “yes”. Many people experience increased anger, impatience, anxiety and despair during these times. Many recovering alcoholics and those struggling to overcome addiction to pornography have a harder time staying sober, and experience deep shame over their inability to successfully fight temptation. Yes, fasting periods are intended to be times of focused struggle against temptation and sin, However, we are incarnate beings, and what we choose to eat does have tremendous impact on our ability to resist sin.
Why is this? Our brains are designed by God to function best when there is a steady supply of fuel (glucose) to them. Our blood sugar is supposed to fluctuate slowly and evenly throughout the day. This allows our energy, mood and behavior to stay stable and predictable.
If, however, we start the day with caffeine, white flour and sugar or juice, without a good amount of fiber, healthy fat and protein, our blood sugar rises very quickly, causing an outpouring of insulin to drive it into the cells, and out of the blood. This frequently causes a rapid drop in blood sugar levels, in turn creating an outpouring of adrenaline. Adrenaline makes most of us reactive and irritable. People who are sensitive to adrenaline may become rageful, and have difficulty thinking clearly. Adrenaline is the flight/fight chemical, so it can make our brains think we are under attack or being threatened, even when we are not. Thus we sometimes look for a fight, even when one is not actually happening. Adrenaline also somewhat shuts down the rational part of the brain, and allows the more primitive, instinctive part of the brain more control. This also happens if one or two meals are skipped!
If we don’t do anything at this point to raise our blood sugar, it continues to drop, making us tired, maybe weepy and depressed, and sometimes shaky or confused. According to research, we even have less access to our self-control and will-power. As a result of this, it can be easy to lose our tempers when our blood sugar is low, or is in the process of dropping. Low blood sugar also seems to be a primary relapse trigger for all addicts and alcoholics, regardless of the addiction. It is also a significant cause of anxiety, panic, irritability, depression and violence.
Our brain is now demanding to be fed, and we often unconsciously reach for whatever is our favorite way of raising blood sugar - coffee, soda, candy, alcohol...(even though alcohol doesn’t actually raise blood sugar levels). The process starts over again, and our blood sugar, along with our mood, energy and predictability, dips and soars all day.
Traditional vegan societies, and traditional fasting foods avoid these pitfalls. Whole grains like bulgar, brown rice, quinoa and amaranth and legumes like garbanzo beans, black beans, soy and lentils (think Lent!) are high in protein, high in fiber and allow blood sugar levels to rise and fall gently. Some fasting traditions include shellfish, and non-fish seafood like octopus and squid, all high in protein. Some churches will allow milk products like cheese, and other will allow fish on weekends, etc. A priestly dispensation can always be requested for those who must remain on a consistently high protein diet.
The issue comes with living in our fast food culture. One Orthodox client we had was about to be divorced by his wife because he would come home from work and rage at his family. Upon inquiry, it turned out that his typical menu consisted of black coffee with sugar and a donut for breakfast, a bag of potato chips and coke for lunch, and a milk-free candy bar on the way home from work. Perfectly fasting food!!! As soon as he started eating a complete meal for breakfast and lunch, with a protein bar on the way home from work, his rages completely and immediately ceased – until Lent started! We then taught him how to keep his blood sugar stable and still keep the Fast, and he saved his marriage. Another client found that if she ate sugary cereal for lunch, because it was easy, quick and fasting, pornographic images would torment her, until she ate real food, and then they disappeared.
How are we to understand this? As Scripture says, our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit”. God designed them to function optimally when fed enough of the proper nutrients. When we honor this design, our bodies can actually help to support our spiritual endeavors, rather than sabotage them.
There are many great Lenten and vegan cookbooks around. Healthy quick fixes can include protein bars with at least 10 grams of protein in each bar, unsweetened nut butter on carrots, apples or a good quality whole grain bread, vegan protein powder (not soy, because it is too hormonally active) for shakes and smoothies, and occasional soy foods such as tofu or tempeh. Costco and other regular grocery stores have frozen vegan burgers as well. Unsweetened, whole grain cereal can be mixed with protein powder for a more substantial meal.
The key is to eat a protein rich meal, low on the glycemic index every 3-4 hours. The Glycemic Index is a calculation of how long it takes certain foods to raise blood sugar levels. It is ideal to mostly eat foods below 50 on this Index, and to only eat higher GI foods with lower ones, to slow down the absorption of sugar and refined carbohydrates from your digestive tract. On strict fast days, if you intend to go the whole day without food, or when fasting before communion, be aware that natural temptations will arise, and address them prayerfully.