Lent is almost over and it’s time to reflect on my fast for 2011. My exercise this year has been to give up sugar. Not entirely, of course, because I need some sugar, but I’ve cut all added sugars from my diet. I restrict myself to getting sugar from fruit or from whole foods that have naturally occurring sugars. It’s been tough. Not because I have a huge sweet-tooth, which I don’t, but because sugar is added to most foods during manufacturing or preparation. I’ve had to become a food detective, reading every label in the grocery store and pestering every restaurant server about what they put in each menu item. It’s shocking how much added sugar is in almost every food. Even organic foods are often stuffed with superfluous brown sugar or honey. I’ve discovered that a sugar-conscious diet is difficult to sustain and a zero-added-sugar diet almost impossible if you’re shopping in American grocery stores. Impossible, you ask? If you don’t believe me, I suggest you head straight to the store and read the labels of 10 different brands of sandwich bread. You’ll be shocked how many times sugar is listed as one of the first three ingredients in “heart healthy,” “whole wheat” or “whole grain” favorites.
What will shock you more, perhaps even appall you, is a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association which reported that the average American consumes 21.4 teaspoons of added sugar a day! That accounts for 320 extra calories from sugar alone. To put this in context, physicians recommend that women consume less than 6.5 teaspoons of added sugar a day, with a slightly higher 9.5 teaspoons for men.
The point of my fast was absolutely not to lose weight, though some weight loss has been a minor natural by-product. My hope instead, was to create a life where food is intentionally bland. For me, the season of Lent is about empathy, walking with Jesus in the desert, sacrificing personal desires to prepare for a feast of soul food. If Jesus could fast completely for forty days, be taunted by satan and step away from deprivation and temptation ready to launch his ministry, then I think it’s possible, and right, for this self-indulgent, foodie, pilgrim/pastor to take a step in the same direction.
As the sugar leeched out of my system, the fast first threatened and then heightened my focus. I’ve been chewing on some new thoughts. First, when you avoid added and processed sugars, natural sugars taste sweeter and are more satisfying. The other day I had a grape set off an atomic bomb of sweetness in my mouth. My eyes watered and I wheezed and hacked like someone who just ate a handful of sour-patch-kids. I had to limit my grape intake to 5. Second, I now understand that God kept the people of Israel in the desert for forty long years, surviving only on miraculously provided manna and water, because he needed to teach his people that trust and dependence on God, not food, are the fundamental nutrients for life. (Much easier to learn that lesson before you enter a land flowing with milk and honey.) Third, Lent can bring you to tears of both weakness and joy.
I openly confess that I’ve had to fight some major cravings. Like I said, I don’t have a huge sweet tooth, but there is this bowl of Tootsie Rolls on our kitchen counter, right next to the toaster. The Tootsies sing to me each morning as I get out a bowl and spoon for my fiber rich, flavorless cereal. Three days ago I had a whopper of a dream. My favorite coffee shop was in danger of closing and the manager pleaded with me to help her save the store. Spying ten inch slices of german chocolate cake nestled between other mouth-watering confections (including baklava, glaze donuts, lemon poppy-seed cupcakes and caramel brownies), I suggested she give out free samples to everyone in the shop – myself included – to boost sales. What’s this? I rarely remember my dreams and now I’m dreaming about fork-defying, three-pound slices of chocolate cake? I don’t even like chocolate! The pantry, a friend I used to visit several times a day, is now my arch-nemesis. Other than to forage for nuts and popcorn, she’s off-limits. I’m trying to play nice with the twin crisper drawers in the fridge that host fruits and vegetables. I just want one Tootsie.
This is the game I’ve played every day for the last 38 days, passing the Tootsie bowl to pull out a carrot stick, dreaming about chocolate hours after I read about Jesus refusing to turn stones to bread. Actually it feels less like a game and more like climbing Mt. Ranier. Shoeless. But I’ve survived, am surviving. I’d say I’m in a good and vulnerable place for the darkness that descends tomorrow, Good Friday.