By Jennie McKeon
As the excesses of Mardi Gras subside, certain denominations within the Christian religion begin their observance of Lent. The tradition is based on Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert, and often involves giving up certain foods or drinks.
While a short-term Lent commitment has spiritual aims, a longer term change in one’s diet—letting go of things like alcohol or sugar—could prove beneficial as well.
Leah Seacrest is the wellness coordinator for Sacred Heart Health system and group fitness director and operator for Studio P Pilates at Omni Health and Fitness. Seacrest has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from the University of Georgia and has been a trainer for over 20 years in health and wellness. Needless to say, she knows her way around nutrition facts.
“Truly, more so than a singular food or drink, it may be more beneficial to go to the source of our ‘demons’ and give up a habit,” Seacrest said in an e-mail interview. “For example, I had a client that ate fairly healthy but was in the routine of having a heavy snack before bedtime. Once we worked out a better eating schedule during the day of three meals and two snacks, and stopped any snacks after 7 p.m., she lost the extra 10 pounds that hadn’t budged before. So, she really didn’t give up anything, she just readjusted her habits.”
Seacrest had another client who could not stop herself from eating the chocolates she kept on her desk. The solution was replacing them with mints.
While the purpose of Lent is supposed to be spiritual, it wouldn’t hurt to be healthier. And while you decide what to give up, it’s important to know why you should give up a particular food and what would be its best substitute when the cravings kick in.
GIVING UP THE GOODS
Those of you out there with a sweet-tooth are most likely vowing to give up candy and chocolate for Lent. You might think those yogurts with fruit at the bottom, or ones named after desserts, would be a great substitute (Heidi Klum likes them!), but Seacrest points out their faults.
“What’s at the bottom of those yogurts are nothing like real fruit, most of the time it’s a sugary gel substance that adds no nutritive value and is far from real fruit,” she said. “And, quite frankly if a yogurt has a frilly name, it’s probably not good for you. Yogurt’s nutrients are good for everyone and its mix of carbohydrates and protein are great, but pick the wrong kind and a single serving of yogurt can have a really high amount of sugar and saturated fat. It’s better to pick a yogurt with additional active cultures to help your digestive system, or plain yogurt and liven it up with fresh fruit or nuts.”
Instead, Seacrest says you want a yogurt that has “live and active” cultures with no more than 180 calories, one and a half grams of saturated fat and 30 grams of sugar. You want at least 20 percent of your daily calcium and 300 milligrams of potassium with your yogurt.
Energy bars are another misleading “healthy alternative.”
“I heard once, most of them being described as candy bars rolled in granola, and, that is basically what they are,” Seacrest said. “A lot of them out there are filled with high fructose corn syrup, added sugar, and saturated fat. Plus most of them are more of a snack size, but because of their calorie content they really should replace an entire meal.”
Seacrest suggests fueling up with “high quality carbs and protein” by opting for a one-quarter cup of trail mix or one and a half ounces of low-fat cheese and three or four small, whole-grain crackers.
Many observers of Lent might give up breads—taking a cue from fad diets—but you don’t have to. Instead, you can substitute white bread, which is essentially sugar, and choose wholegrain. However, Seacrest explains, shopping for wholegrain can be tricky too.
“Opt for wholegrain bread with complex carbohydrates and fiber,” she said. “Look for whole grain flour, a simple ingredient list, preferably two to three grams of fiber per slice and preferably minimal sweeteners. Wholegrain breads do tend to have more calories than their white counterpart so you can always do lettuce wraps as a healthy alternative.”
You could also be a more conscious label reader and give up types of foods or ingredients. Eliminating processed foods, which are typically overeaten Seacrest said, would do a body good.
“Processed foods make up a big percentage of snacks people eat every day,” she said. “Processed foods can contain several things that are bad for our health.”
Two culprits you’ll find in processed foods are trans fat and high fructose corn syrup, which Seacrest said you should be on the lookout for.
“Trans fats raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol,” Seacrest said. “You can find them in commercially fried foods and packaged foods, like baked goods. Another name for them you will see on packaging is ‘hydrogenated.’ Trans fats contribute to weight gain and put you at greater risk for heart disease, cancer, and stroke.”
High fructose corn syrup is linked to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. It’s the main ingredient in soda, and it can also be hidden in breads and pastas. After the holidays you may have already had your fill of candy and alcohol. If not, try giving up either one. Candy addicts can cut 300 calories or more by eliminating it from your diet, the same goes for alcohol.
“A lot of candies are pure sugar and have nearly zero nutritive value. They are digested very rapidly, raise your blood sugar super-fast, and leave you wanting another handful.” Seacrest said. “Need a healthy alternative? Reach for a piece of fruit. To make it a great snack, pair the fruit with a protein, like peanut butter. Alcohol consumption also contributes to you eating more, thus leading to more calories ingested.”
MAKING THE CHANGE LAST
You might notice after 40 days that you don’t crave sweets, alcohol or white bread as much as you think. Maybe this is what Lent is all about—realizing what’s really important in life and what we can live without.
“The small steps add up,” Seacrest said. “Little changes in eating and activity level have a more positive impact on health than drastic ones. Rarely do extreme diets last over the long term. So, maybe give yourself a goal like, ‘I will give up fried foods Monday through Friday’ or ‘I will only drink one soda a day.’ That way, you are giving yourself a doable goal.”
Lent or no Lent, people are constantly seeking ways to shed a few pounds. Making a lifestyle change shouldn’t last for a month or two, but a lifetime and so you need to be patient with yourself.
“I think the number one piece of advice is don’t beat yourself up,” Seacrest said. “Everyone is trying to balance the ups and downs of life with family, friends, work, etc., on top of trying to eat right and exercise. It’s okay if you overindulge every once in a while and it’s okay if you fall off your path. Forgive yourself and get right back on track.”
Sacred Heart Health System
5151 N. 9th Ave. 416-7000
Omni Health & Fitness Center
5007 N. Davis Hwy. 484-2740