Slow Return from a Lenten Fast

I gave up desserts for Lent this year, and the results were somewhat unexpected.

I grew up in a household where desserts were de rigueur. They were the expected conclusion of every lunch or dinner. My mother was a good cook and provided filling meals, but she always claimed she had “saved a little corner” of her stomach for dessert. Nowadays, people call that the “dessert stomach,” and apparently it’s really a thing.

So I regarded dessert as an essential component of every meal. If a party served only “heavy hors d’oeuvres,” I felt disappointed if there wasn’t some little “sweet taste.” If I ate out and (as regularly happens nowadays) filled up on half the entrée (the rest going home in a box), so dessert was out of the question, at least I was grateful for the Andes mint or peppermint the restaurant provided.

Over the years, as it’s become increasingly difficult to control my weight, I’ve tried to cut down on desserts, but it was difficult. After supper, I would have one “square” (that is, one rectangular segment) of a Giant (6.8 oz.) Hershey Special Dark bar (just 60 calories!). After lunch, my preferred dessert was one or two oatmeal raisin cookies from the bakery at Piggly Wiggly—hardly even dessert, right? After all, oatmeal and raisins are good for you!

I have never had any will power, so I find dieting (and New Year’s resolutions) pretty much a lost cause, but, even though I don’t have any particular religious reverence for Lent, I have found that, when I give something up for Lent, it is easier for me to stick to it. Perhaps it’s because I feel I’ve made a commitment to something or someone besides myself. This was a distinction I found it hard to impress on my mother-in-law, who had been brought up a Baptist and consequently was unaccustomed to Lenten observance. We often visited our in-laws during the kids’ spring break, which usually fell before Easter. Every time I said, “No, thank you,” to dessert and she continued to press it on me, I’d explain again that I’d given up desserts (or chocolate in some cases) for Lent, and she’d say, “Oh, yes, I forgot you were dieting.”

This time I didn’t announce my intentions to anyone. If my husband noticed that I was routinely avoiding and declining desserts, he didn’t mention it. I slipped up just once, a week into Lent, when our Tuesday book reviewer, a fabulous cook, brought her own home-baked cookies as refreshments. They were heavenly, and it was only after I’d had two of them that I realized, with horror, that I’d transgressed. After that, however, I didn’t even take advantage of fast-free Sundays.

The results surprised me. I’d expected the sacrifice to be really hard. Instead, I found it in many ways a relief. For example, those oatmeal-raisin cookies were often hard won. Sometimes I’d have to go to Piggly Wiggly three or more times to find them in stock. By Ash Wednesday, there had been none available since before Christmas. Once I’d made up my mind not to eat them, anyway, I stopped fretting over their unavailability.

But the most revealing experience was a University of Alabama reception following the performance of A Chorus Line by the university’s Department of Theatre & Dance at the Saenger Theater in Mobile. In addition to the wine (which, in retrospect, I also didn’t need), there were tables full of petits fours and other dainty confections. I am a sucker for “pretty” desserts, but if I had been able to sample them, I would have been a glutton because there were half a dozen or more different varieties, and I would have wanted to try them all. I was genuinely grateful to be relieved of that temptation!

Throughout the eight weeks, I found I didn’t really crave sweets. In fact, when I was in the Walmart aisle that canned fruit shares with “seasonal,” I found myself totally uninterested in chocolate rabbits and eggs. I did cheat a little, substituting an occasional dried date for the chocolate square or a cookie, but that was fruit, not “dessert” per se, right?

In the end, what I realized was that eating dessert had just become a habit, one that I had given myself permission to break. Now, two weeks after Easter, I’m still mostly refraining. A couple of days before Easter, my husband craved brownies, and, unable to find our usual mix, I bought three different ones. He’s so far made up two batches, and I’ve “helped” dispose of them, but aside from that I’m still on the wagon. When I had “Hershey bar” on my shopping list and found that Walmart was out of the Giant bar, I was more relieved than disappointed: I’ve found that a date works just as well as a chocolate square.

I had, of course, hoped that omitting desserts would make me “healthier”—that is, that I would lose weight. Well, I did. I have at various points weighed as much as 5–7 pounds less than when I started, and although I’ve probably reached a “plateau” now, I am hoping that extending my “fast” will show continuing results. But even if it doesn’t, I feel good about breaking a pointless habit.

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