Facing a low-carb Lent

Depending on who is counting, somewhere between 5 million and 50 million Americans are on low-carbohydrate diets -- give or take a few million.

Trend watchers are even tossing around this monster statistic -- one in four Americans has caught the low-carb bug. That's a lot of bacon, sausage, eggs and cheese for the Atkins disciples and turkey, fish, egg substitutes and low-fat cheese for those who walk the way of the South Beach Diet.

This also means -- with 5 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in America -- that lots of people are trying to reconcile low-carb diets with the fasting discipline of Lent.

"I know that I'm struggling and everywhere I go I discover I'm not the only one," said Chuck Powell of the national Orthodox radio program Come Receive the Light (www.receive.org). "Lent is always a challenge and that's a good thing. But combine Lent with trying to stay on a low-carb and it's like, 'What is there left we can eat?' "

This leads to new questions, he said, such as: "What is the purpose of food anyway? What is the spiritual lesson to be learned here?"

Fasting is a part of life for many religious believers, including Jews at Yom Kippur and Muslims in the season of Ramadan. During the 40-day season of Lent, which precedes Easter, faithful Catholics will abstain from meat to varying degrees. Christians in other flocks may give up sweets or some other favorite food.

But Eastern Orthodox churches urge their members to follow an ancient fast that means abstaining from meat, eggs and dairy products. Orthodox believers do eat shrimp, scallops and other shellfish, but avoid meats with bones. There are subtle fasting differences between Greeks, Russians, Arabs and other Orthodox.

Nevertheless, these traditions tend to push those keeping the fast toward rice, pasta, corn, potatoes and bread -- the very foods shunned in low-carb diets. For many dieters the fear is real: What if they strive to keep the fast and, with a burst of carbohydrates, start regaining the weight they have struggled to lose?

"It seems like everybody in America is concerned about their weight and their health right now and you'd have to say that is a good thing," said Father Christopher Metropulos of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., founder of Come Receive the Light. "At the same time, it seems that this is making everyone totally consumed with food and the reason we fast is to try to learn not to be consumed with food. ... The goal of the fast is to learn to crave God, not food."

And it's not just the lay people who are struggling with the fast, or being tempted to deny that these diet conflicts are real.

"I know priests who doing these diets and they are working for them," said Metropulos. "But I asked a priest who is doing the Atkins Diet, 'What are you going to eat during Lent?' And he said, 'I'll be busy. I just won't eat. I won't have time to eat.' I told him, 'Good luck. You'll need it.' "

Some Orthodox people cope by sharing recipes for tofu desserts, falafel, oriental salads (the key is the right sesame-seed dressing) and every imaginable casserole that can be made with beans. They know the microwave properties of every soy product on the market. They can read food labels like scientists.

In the end, many find it easy to lose sight of what Lenten fasting is supposed to be about in the first place, said Father Matthew Streett of Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Potomac, Md. The goal is to discipline the will and to encourage repentance. Anyone who thinks of fasting as a form of dieting is missing the point.

"Fasting from food is only one aspect of fasting," he said, in a commentary written for strugglers. "Lent is a time for turning away from the emptier pleasures of our society: television, video games and the other forces that often do more to harm family communication and bonding rather than help.

"In Lent, we should examine our lives and isolate the influences that are destructive or silly, the habits that draw us away from God."