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Is giving up sugar for Lent restrictive?

By Michelle May, M.D.

Giving-up-sugar-for-LentA good question came up during my recent Q&A call with the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Support Community about whether giving up sugar for Lent is restrictive. I’m sharing my answer because it is a timely question and also applies to similar issues that come up as we make decisions about what to eat in the context of a mindful, non-diet approach to eating.

Q – I have been practicing mindful eating for a while now and I am doing much better in terms of yo-yo dieting and guilt. However, I decided to give up sugar for Lent and I am worried about whether that is restrictive and whether this could set me back.

A – Congratulations on your progress! Learning how to choose freely from all foods without guilt (and the resulting overeating) is an essential step toward healing your relationship with food.

While giving up sugar for Lent could feel restrictive and therefore could lead back to an “eat-repent-repeat” cycle, it really depends on your intention when you made that decision and how you think about your decision during this period of time.

Like other spiritual disciplines such as fasting, the purpose of giving up a habit or sacrificing other “earthly” luxuries (such as television) during Lent is to develop a closer relationship with God. If that was your intention for giving up sugar (or chocolate or other pleasurable foods) and if that remains your focus throughout the Lenten season, it is much less likely to trigger feelings of deprivation.

If, however, your intention was to use lent as an “excuse” to “make” yourself give up sugar, then you have turned this spiritual practice into a diet. Similarly, if your intention was to use Lent to lose weight, then giving up sugar for Lent is more likely to fuel the Restrictive Eating Cycle which, as you know, will often lead you right back to the Overeating Cycle (and a chocolate bunny binge on Easter)!

Whatever your reasons (conscious or subconscious), since you’ve already made this commitment, you can decide whether you are able to reframe your decision so it is not about restriction, but about connection. For example:

  • Can you mindfully use this time to reflect on your relationship with food and any ways that it may be interfering with your connection to God, yourself, and/or others?
  • Can you use this time to build your self-care buffer zone by redirecting your attention to other practices such as prayer, meditation, reading, or journaling?
  • If cravings come up, can you gently remind yourself that this was a choice for a purpose, not something you were forced to do?
  • Can you pay attention to the lessons you learn from this practice?
  • When Lent is over, can you make a conscious decision about how you will incorporate sugar into your life in a way that feels good – body, mind, and spirit?
  • As you celebrate with family and friends, can you eat mindfully and joyfully without “making up for deprivation” and without planning to repent for eating what you love?

Ultimately, consciously deciding not to eat a particular food for religious, ethical, or health reasons is not in itself restrictive, and therefore does not necessarily lead to feelings of deprivation. It is the intention, thoughts, and beliefs you hold about the decision that makes all the difference.

(You may also enjoy my related essay, Chocolat: Not What We Resist but What We Create.)


About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.


  1. Margaret Limbaugh says:

    The question about observing a fast for Lent stuck a nerve with me and I was hot to see your response. I appreciate your educated reply to the inquiry. As you pointed out, a fast is NOT a diet. A fast is a spiritual commitment between the individual and God. A person who is fasting should know that it is not their “will power” that brings them through their fast…it is God’s grace. God gives me grace every time I fast. In fact, when I water fast, the water often tastes “sweet”…a strange phenomenon. I am thankful to Christ for this wonderful season and for fasting and for His grace. ~Margaret

  2. Julie says:

    I love your article! I’ve given up chocolate and/or sugar a number of times for Lent in the hopes of stopping the binge cycle. Nothing has helped me quite like the Am I Hungry program to recognize why I was in the cycle at all. I hated the constant guilt and cold turkey never worked for me long term. Only now with some balance am I seeing improvements that help me live happier and way more guilt free. Thanks Michelle for the newsletters that are a constant reminder of where I’ve been and how to move forward. Keep up the great posts! PS. I’ve also since learned that God never intended the guilt. I did that all to myself.

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