When prudence meets penitence

Habits are hard to change.  Especially those that have been ingrained over a lifetime.

The longer you do something the more entrenched that behavior becomes.  You operate on auto-pilot.  And after thirty or forty years, it’s almost impossible to alter your course.

This is true of many of the daily routines we practice, from how we brush our teeth in the morning to what we do at bedtime.  It’s especially true of what and how we eat.

So when the Sultan of Slow comes along admonishing you to enjoy a more plant-based diet, as he has these past few months, your head may say “good idea,” but your stomach says “no way!”

Well, I have a confession to make.  I have a hard time, too.  That’s why, during the upcoming Lenten season, I’m giving up meat and chicken as my personal penance. 

Lent is a portion of the Christian calendar devoted to prayer, atonement, and self-denial.  It lasts for the approximately six weeks leading up to Holy Week, and culminates in the joyous celebration of Easter.

Many religions have similar periods in which observers fast or otherwise deny themselves common worldly pleasures.

The pious take these periods very seriously.  More casual observers are more, well, casual about the whole thing.

They might deny themselves the pleasure of chocolate, for instance.  Or martinis.  Of course, there’s always an oatmeal cookie or a glass of wine as a substitute.

Denial, indeed.

One year quite awhile ago, Pam and I gave up wine for Lent.  We didn’t have a substitute because wine is about all we drink.  We thought we were going to die.  Which, I suppose, was the point.

Every year since our denial has been of the tamer variety.  One year we gave up bread.  Another year it was eating in restaurants.

My standard joke when asked what I’m giving up for Lent has become: “Religion!”

Somewhere between absolving to refrain from eating chocolate and beating yourself with a stick, is the middle ground in which the more industrious among us try to deny themselves the pleasure of something harmful yet enjoyable in their lives, while also attempting to establish healthier behaviors.

Thus you might find a heavy drinker resolve to limit themselves to one or two drinks a day during Lent.  A smoker may dramatically cut back on their habit.  Or a couple may stop binge watching Downton Abbey and go for an evening walk instead.

And thus it has come to pass that Pam and I have resolved to practice what we preach.  We’re giving up animal protein.

Actually, that was the first pass.  We’ve since refined it to allowing ourselves two to three servings of fish a week due to the significant health benefits.

So for six weeks we’re becoming pescatarians in the hope that we can break our habit of serving meat as the main course, with a side of vegetables.

The health benefits of a whole-food, plant-based diet are well documented.  In the awkwardly titled book, How Not to Die, Dr. Michael Greger explains how the typical Western diet is slowly killing us through heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and a host of other health maladies.

The remedy, whether you want to live to 100 or simply live a healthier life, is to cut out the meat and switch to vegetables.

For visual proof look at Bill Clinton.  Regardless of your politics, there’s no denying that the cheeseburger chomping former President, following quadruple bypass heart surgery, looks and feels remarkably healthier after switching to a vegan diet.

But cheeseburgers and french fries are iconic items on the American dinner plate.  So is a good steak.  And if one is good, four times a week is even better.

Thus the quadruple bypass.

But as well intentioned as we might be, and no matter how hard we try, changing these eating habits is incredibly difficult.

I may well be the poster child for this.

I love to cook.  And I have several shelves of cook books in the kitchen, which I consult often.  In recent years at least half of the cook books I buy have been vegetable based.  From The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook to Vegetable of the Day, I have put my money where my mouth is.

And then I ignore all the healthy recipes and revert to my old standby’s.  Which, regardless of the dish, features an animal protein as the main event with a side of vegetables.

I have tried, people.  Hard.  But I haven’t been able to break the eating habits established over my lifetime.

That’s why, this year, I’m not going to nibble around the edges of self-denial.  I’m not giving up a single edible treat in the Lenten equivalent of passing the bottle of vermouth over the gin.

I’m going whole hog and becoming mostly vegetarian.  Pescatarian, to be precise.

This is what happens when prudence meets penitence.  When doing what’s good for you becomes a religious experience.

After 40 days and 40 nights I’m hopeful that the change in eating behavior will have developed into a new, more healthy, habit.

One that, after Easter and beyond, simply becomes what we do and how we eat.  Rather than so much wishful thinking.

If you’re looking to make a similar change in your diet, I invite you to join me.


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