Millions of Americans will spend the next 40 days “giving up” on chocolate, French fries or soft drinks for Lent. While the purpose of abstaining is spiritual, there can be a healthy component to the rite as well.
“For many people, Lent is a lot like a short-term diet,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D., a physician and medical researcher. “And like any other diet, there are positives and negatives.”
Giving up things like desserts or fried foods can significantly reduce the amount of fat, sugar and total calories consumed in a day. In the long term, the benefit of such a diet could be longer life.
In studies on animals ranging from fruit flies to primates, a restricted calorie diet has extended life spans and improved health in a variety of ways. One study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in rhesus macaques found that calorie restriction slows the effects of aging and delays the onset of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, brain atrophy and heart disease.
At 20 years into the study, 80 percent of the monkeys on the calorie restricted diets were still alive, versus about 50 percent of the “control” group that consumed a regular diet.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know about the effects of restricted calorie diets,” Prescott said. “The results have been promising so far, but I’m not ready to tell people to cut their food intake drastically. But you certainly can’t go wrong eating fewer processed foods and more vegetables and fruits.”
Another common choice during Lent is to abstain from soft drinks. “For anyone trying to lose that last few pounds, cutting out sugary sodas is a great idea,” Prescott said. “Because a can of Coke doesn’t fill us up, we tend to forget that we’re adding 140 calories at a time to our daily intake.”
According to research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School, women who drank one or more sugary drinks a day gained more weight and were 83 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than women who drank soda less than once a month.
And diet sodas may not be the answer, as a study from Purdue University showed that rats who ate foods containing artificial sweeteners gained more weight than those who were given sugar.
Rather than give up a food or drink during Lent, some are opting to lay aside the remote control. According to A.C. Nielsen Co., a company that tracks Americans’ television viewing habits, the average American watches more than four hours of TV daily.
“If we used just a quarter of that time for physical fitness—be it walking, jogging, playing sports or even working around the house—we’d be a lot healthier,” Prescott said. “But the key to any type of diet is to make sure we sustain it in the long haul.”
“You might lose some weight if you stop eating dessert for 40 days, but if you have a piece of chocolate cake every night after the 40 days is up, you’re not doing yourself any favors.”