For an effective fast, I would personally base it on calories. According to my understanding of things, fasting (like on Ash Wednesdays) means no meat, and one normal meal with two snacks. Snacks, if I remember correctly, consist of less than half a regular meal. So here’s what I would do, following the guidelines of “The Food Connection” by Sam Graci, an excellent book on nutrition.
- Determine your weight.
- Multiply your weight by 15.
- Multiply that number by 1-1.5 based on your activity level. 1 would be essentially sedentary. 1.5 would be an elite athlete. 1.2 would mean 4 hours of exercise per week.
- The resulting number is the number of calories you need to maintain your present weight, given your activity level.
- Divide that number by 3. This number is what you ought to have at your normal meal.
- Divide that number by 2. Any number less than this is what you ought to have for your snacks.
That is for specific fasting days given by the church. But this cannot be maintained without affecting your well-being, and St. Paul says that disciplining the body is not nearly so good as disciplining the soul - don’t kill yourself when God wants your energy for doing His will elsewhere!
If you want something you could maintain over Lent, then:
- Determine your weight.
- Multiply by 10.
- Multiply by your activity level as above.
This is really the minimum amount you should be taking in so that you can function adequately. You will lose weight on this level of calorie intake, but it should give you enough to function properly. Nutritionists now realize that “grazing” is actually better for you, provided you’re grazing on the foods you need. As you decrease your calories, this might become more important, as you may get hungry sooner.
However, keep in mind what Lent is all about. I made this mistake myself at one point, and so I’m passionate about others not making the same mistake. Lent is about turning back to the Lord, converting to him. Look at what the Catechism says about penance, the heart of Lent:
“[penance] does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false.”
So really, think of Lent as a time to turn toward God, and to do whatever will bring you closer to Him. This, as a means, includes putting to death the old man. For some personalities, the old man may consist of eating what is contrary to reason. But this is not the case for others, and overly focusing on this can exacerbate problems, not help them. Look at whatever is keeping you from doing His positive will, as described in the Catechism and the Bible, and not by some author, and focus on doing whatever positive things will help you realize that goal.
At least for myself, the moment I make the means (intense fasting, etc) the goal, I have real trouble. But when I focus on the good that I’m turning to, whatever comes as a result of that is much easier. For example, if I discover that I could write letters and help others and myself grow in the Lord, that is wonderful. I might stay up, working through dinner without noticing that I’ve not ate yet. Yet were I to say “OK, I will not eat tonight”, and make that my goal, I’d get seriously side-tracked and have trouble. Penance is about turning to God, and putting to death the old man by turning to the Man. Focus on Him, not on the means.
But do we find what we need to aim at better? You might just be helped by doing something like the myers-briggs personality test. I’ve known about it for several years, and a very orthodox priest who I know well also uses it. It’s not infallible, but it can help tell you about who you are, and point out where you might be helped most.
For example, I’m an INTP. INTPs typically excel at theoretical thought, and generally do well in academic settings. However, INTPs often have difficulty following through on initial ideas, and they can become almost oblivious to the world around them. The thing that keeps INTPs from God, often, is not their taste buds but their lack of willingness to engage the world for Him (theory is just so much more interesting sometimes!). So for Lent, the best way to turn to God, to put to death the old man, is to focus on my execution of small details, and become more consistent and reliable in my daily actions. Depending on what type you turn out as, you will have areas of your life that likely need tweaking pointed out to you.
We also have a limited amount of active will that we can apply to something. If you use all your energy abstaining from food, what will you have left to work on that part of you that needs correction so you can do His will better? Good is the enemy of best; while fasting from food may be helpful, if it’s not the most helpful use of your willpower, then do that which will turn you best to Him.
There! A rather lengthy post, but I hope that helps you out. I had great difficulty with Lent before until I figured much of this out, and so I hope this helps you in your present situation. Take care, God bless,