Many people fail to make progress because they are unable to master their drives and instincts, specifically our need for food. Our nutrition is tied to with our emotional life and is ultimately the battle ground in which we strengthen the will. The person who is unable to deny themselves soon finds it difficult to endure other forms of discomfort such as conflict and stress.
However, the world hears this with infected ears. The world teaches that the goal is to be slim and in have a pleasing appearance. As with most things, the world takes something that is good and distorts it with subtle lies. A person does not necessarily have temperance if they are thin or have a six pack. Likewise, a person is not necessarily a glutton if they are overweight. The reason is that the overall health of a person involves many factors, such as hormones and DNA, and while there is a connection between health and virtue, it is not necessarily as direct as some would believe.
That being said, I think we are entering a new era in asceticism where we can take the genuine insights from the tradition and integrate them with contemporary understanding of nutrition.
Caloric Deficit vs A Simple Diet
The main distinction we need to make when understanding the history of Christian fasting and asceticism is between a caloric deficit and a simple diet. Most people understand fasting in terms of going into a caloric deficit. If a person typically consumes 2k or so calories, they reduce their diet by 500 calories, 1k, or they completely go without food for a given period. This form of fasting is currently being researched by a variety of people and while the science of nutrition is constantly evolving, it is not uncommon for medical professionals to believe in the benefits of a caloric restrictive fast.
Of course, the spiritual benefits are well documented. Fasting has the power to atone for sins and heal the temporal effects that remain after confession. Psychologically, we strengthen the will and cultivate emotional intelligence by learning to endure the pain associated with going without.
However, the tradition doesn’t reduce fasting to simply a caloric deficit. There is also the concept of eating a simple diet as a means of cultivating virtue and interior freedom.
The Theory of Food
We are going to integrate the classical thought on food with modern science to discuss the notion of a simple diet. The first premise is that some foods excite us because they are enjoyable to eat and because of their nutritional content. These often lead to gluttony when they are not consumed in moderation. Likewise, other foods calm us and have a different effect for the same reasons.
Foods that are higher in refined sugar, fat, and fried foods are often connected with gluttony precisely because how they taste on the palate and how they effect our metabolism. Particularly with foods that are high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, they spike our blood sugar and in this way can lead to greater enjoyment. In contrast, foods that are higher in fiber, which also happen to be whole foods, tend to calm us down and are less associated with intense pleasure. For example, no one gets excited if you offer them an apple for desert whereas people look forward to a flavorful cake.
The manner in which foods are prepared can also greatly affect their nutritional content and their effect on the body and soul. A plain apple is high in fiber and other nutrients contained in the skin whereas apple juice does not. In terms of pleasure, most people will enjoy apple juice or say a cooked desert with apple vs the plain apple itself. The process of changing the apple greatly affects how it hits our body and our soul.
Another aspect to the classical theory of food is that meat, especially red meat, greatly increases aggression and excites the passion. This is why the Church encouraged periods of abstinence from meat as a means of calming the mind for prayer. While science has in no way studied this thesis, it kind of makes sense. We call strong aggressive men “meat heads” precisely because of this intuition.
Fasting with a Simple Diet
Taking this theory of food into account, we can discuss the idea of fasting by having a plain diet. The clearest example of this is the fasting of strict monastic orders such as the Carthusians and the various monasteries on Mt. Athos. The Christian tradition has always recognized the need for animal protein, but instead of getting animal protein from red meat and chicken, these monks get animal protein from fish, eggs, cheese, and dairy products. Likewise, as was the norm for all of apostolic Churches before Vatican II, they have periods in which they are vegan, refraining from eating any animal products.
We can expand on the idea of a simple diet and look at things such as sweets, deserts, flavorful carbohydrates, and consider our day to day decisions. First, we need to learn about what we are eating and why we are eating it. This can be difficult. As someone who has struggled with weight, I found it either a distraction from what I wanted to do or a matter of vanity. But I was wrong.
A balanced life involves periods of fasting (in both senses) and times of feasting. Some, by the grace of God, are able to deny pleasure more than others and some who have a strong will may appear to be great ascetics, but inwardly their practices are a source of pride.
Moderation, especially in the beginning, is always the safest road, and if a person desires greater discipline and sacrifices, they ought to seek the leadership of sound teachers.