I decided months ago that I would give up sugar and grains for Lent. That may sound extreme, or like not a big deal, depending on your perspective. I was inspired by a group of parents from my son’s preschool class who jointly undertook Whole30 in January – thirty days without sugar, grains, dairy, legumes, alcohol, or caffeine. I don’t eat much meat, so that regime seemed out of reach for me. I have given up sugar for Lent the past ten years or so, and always find it to be a useful reset for my insatiable sweet tooth. By contrast, living without grains seemed impossible, which is precisely why I thought I should try it.
For as long as I can remember, grains have been my fuel, my motivation, my reward. I kept crackers in my middle school backpack to nibble during class, and the dining hall’s bottomless cereal bins got me through college. In fact, through college, graduate school, hectic life as a Hill staffer, and law school, I never drank coffee or turned to chocolate for a pick me up. Nor did I use alcohol to celebrate or calm myself. Instead, I kept pancake batter in the fridge and boxes of cereal in the pantry.
After I had decided to give up grains, but before Lent began, I obsessed over how difficult it was going to be. With each bagel I ate, I savored it in case it would be my last before the grain desert. Late at night, I researched what counts as a grain (for example, young corn is a vegetable, but mature corn becomes a grain) and stocked up on alternatives (almond meal, millet, flaxseed, etc.).
I wish I could report that my Lenten fast was a game-changer. It seemed possible, when I started, that I might hardly miss grains and feel more energetic without the constant highs and lows of my usual carb-heavy diet. Or that I may lose weight, sleep better, or have fewer headaches.
Alas, however, life without grains was as horrible as I’d imagined. I was cranky, unmotivated, and sluggish. Generally, I eat whatever I want whenever I want, so I don’t think about food much except for meal planning for my family. During Lent, however, I became obsessive about what I was going to eat next. I sought out substitutes to satisfy my grain cravings, usually in vain. No amount of nuts is the same as honey nut cheerios, and chia seed pudding is a poor substitute for oatmeal (in my opinion). My office was full of temptations – heart shaped donuts leftover from Valentine’s Day, homemade brownies brought in by a coworker, someone’s reheated pizza in the microwave. Home was no better, as my bread-and-pasta loving family did not change their diet in solidarity. So I prepared their favorite meals as usual, leaving the yummiest parts off my plate.
Many many times over the forty days I asked myself why I was depriving myself. The internal dialogue went something like this: “Do I feel I am joining in the sufferings of Christ? No, for as tough as passing up a bagel can be, I cannot deny that I live a blessed and joy-filled life. Is denying myself unnecessary excesses making me more attuned to the Lord’s voice? Even the question seems laughable. If anything, I am more likely to take the Lord’s name in vain when I find I have unconsciously fixed myself a bowl of cereal out of habit. Perhaps the most common justification for a Lenten fast is to strengthen self-discipline to better resist unhealthy temptations of all kinds. For sure, the only reason I have stuck with this ridiculous plan is to prove to myself that I can do it. That seems pretty silly. Isn’t life tough enough?”
Don’t get me wrong, I think it is awesome when my friends run marathons, take their kids on a long flight on their own, or invite the entire preschool over for a party. Still, I wonder what compels them to push beyond what is hard to do the painfully difficult. Life is bumpy enough without going to the trouble of building a mountain to climb over. And yet, there is clearly something in human nature that drives us to challenge ourselves, even when there seems to be no objective reason for doing so. I see my children doing it all the time – pushing their limits, physically and psychologically. This is both a symptom and cause of growth, so even when it seems likely that they will fail, I let my little ones try.
As a working mom with three small kids and a more-than-full-time job, just keeping my kids fed and in clean clothes often seems to be the limit of my abilities. Still, adding a low-stakes challenge like going grain-free for forty days helped me see that I can take on more when needed. Like money in the bank, knowing I have some self-discipline in reserve is comforting. So maybe my grain-free Lent wasn’t a silly stunt after all, but in any case, I’m never doing it again!