The 40 days leading up to Easter, known as Lent, are a time of restriction for many. If you’re thinking of giving up chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, or meat—some of the most popular sacrifices—here’s what you should know about how doing so will affect your brain and body.
But first, a little reality check: I grew up in a community where it seemed every Lent, the woman around me—though rarely the men—would give up candy or chocolate or something like “fried foods.” If you’re contemplating something similar, I’d ask you to consider whether you have a purely religious motivation for restricting what you eat, or if you’re merely dieting with extra guilt?
I’m not qualified to give religious advice, so I’d recommend talking with your religious leaders or others in your community about whether restricting food to hopefully lose weight maybe isn’t missing the point of Lent. (If you’d like some food for thought, this article from a Catholic religious studies professor talks about the intersection of religious fasting and diet culture.)
Strictly from a health point of view, a restrictive diet is still a restrictive diet, no matter the reasoning behind it. So let’s take a look at four popular Lenten sacrifices and what may happen to your brain and body if you go cold turkey for 40 days.
Sugar and chocolate
Biologically, we like sugar. Our brains really like sugar. While neuroscientists will argue over whether the word “addiction” should be applied to something as basic as sugar, our brains do react to it with dopamine, a chemical also released in response to other pleasurable things like drugs and sex.
The first few days without sugar tend to be difficult, triggering cravings and potentially (if you give in) bingeing behaviors. People who give up sugar often report that after the first week or so, they’re more able to stick with their intentions. It’s not clear whether that’s solely because our cravings subside, or because we also get better at replacing them with other habits, like eating more filling meals so we don’t get hungry for snacks.
The mental aspect of restricting something as common as sugar is worth considering. Overly strict rules about food can turn into disordered eating in some people.
People often give up chocolate specifically, rather than the whole category of sweets or sugar, but the effects will be similar. If you only give up chocolate, though, you can have a different sweet snack when cravings hit. Whether that aligns with your goals or not is up to you.
If Lenten diets are a do-over of new year’s resolution diets, perhaps giving up alcohol is a do-over of Dry January. Similar considerations apply.
If you think you may have a problem with drinking too much alcohol, consider getting professional help rather than counting on Lent to solve your problems. You can find a self-evaluation questionnaire and resources for treatment here.
How much giving up alcohol affects you will depend on how much alcohol you are used to drinking, and how you use it. For example, if you frequently drink before bed, giving up those drinks will likely help you sleep better. If drinks make up a significant amount of your daily calories, giving them up might help you lose or maintain your body weight. And if you often wake up with a hangover, giving up drinking will gain you back some headache-free weekend mornings.
If you give up coffee or caffeinated sodas, you’re giving up caffeine. As with alcohol, the effects of going cold turkey will depend on how much you were consuming in the first place.
The most common symptoms of caffeine withdrawal include headaches and fatigue. There are also more subtle signs, like feelings of anxiety, depression, or irritability. Drinking water and getting enough sleep can help with these.
If you were using caffeine to compensate for poor sleep, taking away the caffeine just leaves you with…poor sleep. So make sure to take care of yourself in all respects; don’t just quit caffeine and expect everything to magically get better.
To give up caffeine without withdrawal symptoms, cut down gradually. Half-caf coffee (made with half regular coffee and half decaf) can help. So can caffeine-free versions of your favorite sodas.
Giving up meat on Fridays is already a robust Lenten practice, as you’ll know if you live in a city with a strong tradition of Friday night church basement fish frys. But maybe you’d like to take the next step and give up meat for all of Lent.
If you plan out your switch to a plant-based diet, your body might not even notice the difference. The key is to make sure you’re choosing foods that give you plenty of protein, since plant foods are lower in protein than meats. If you take the time to learn about protein sources, you’ll be fine—tofu, beans, grains, and many meat substitutes have plenty. But if you continue eating the same foods as before and only subtract the meat, you may be in trouble. For example, if you’re used to grabbing a burger with fries for lunch, a veggie burger with fries is a reasonably good substitute. A double order of fries is not.
We have a guide to switching to a plant-based diet here. Just be aware that drastic changes in the amount of fiber you’re eating can play havoc on a sensitive gut, so ease into your new diet thoughtfully.