I remember my first sacrifice like it was yesterday.
I came off the youth soccer field, my 8-year-old knees caked in mud, a bowl-cut of wet hair plastered against my face, endorphins coursing through my body years before I would learn of their existence. "Mom," I proclaimed proudly, "I'm giving up cookies for Lent."
This week we began the Lenten season, the 40 days of observance that start on a Wednesday when you pass a bunch of folks on the sidewalk with black smudges on their foreheads, and end on Easter Sunday, when those same folks brunch in their beautiful pastels.
Lent asks Catholics to practice going without, because Jesus went without as he wandered the desert for 40 days. (He also sacrificed most of his adult years to pay for our sins.) That’s the origin. But the reason giving things up for Lent stuck as a practice probably has more to do with the fact sacrifice demonstrates one's commitment.
Each March, my Irish-blooded mother insisted that her 4 sons give up something for Lent. (My father was the sole household hold out, getting a pass because he was lapsed Protestant.) Though we could choose to give up habits like lying or fighting with our siblings, her suggestions — and our choices — tended toward things like soda, cookies, and candy. Forgoing sweets not only provided an opportunity for us to take on discrete, concrete deprivations of pleasure but offered the requisite peer accountability (tattling, competitive brothers) and moral mandate (Mom, and God above her) to prove our faith. As I grew older, I realized there was another side-effect of my piety to enjoy: A narrowing waistline.
Like many other lapsed Catholics, the linkage between earthly feasts and guilt has proven a more lasting influence in my life than most everything else taught in Sunday School. Catholic guilt is a potent enough cultural force to merit its own Wikipedia page, where a user has helpfully inventoried a handful of university studies as evidence that there’s a link between religious discipline and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I’ll leave that battle for the Wikipedia edit page, but Catholicism is a religion that asks you to report back weekly (or daily, preferably) on the worst things you’ve done since your last visit. So it's not that far of a jump from berating yourself for your earthly sins to berating yourself for your culinary ones.
Our family's tradition of allowing indulgence on Sundays - if you attended Mass - served as the weekly "cheat day" now promoted in many branded diet programs like the Tim Ferris's The Four Hour Body. Getting to eat the very treats we had given up in the first place allowed us to reset our weak, mortal willpower to endure another 6 days of deprivation. The cheat day worked because it kept us going in the right direction: It was far easier to successfully make it 6 days without candy bars, rather, say, 2 weeks, a stretch of time that would inevitably give way to a sweet, nougat-y relapse.
Lent’s meatless Fridays were my first exposure to a pescatarian diet, as well as many other Americans': In 1962, a struggling McDonald's franchisee in Cleveland introduced the Filet-o-Fish specifically to buoy sales amongst the Roman Catholic customers who made up 87% of his market. It launched on Good Friday and was an immediate hit, outperforming McDonald’s Founder Ray Kroc’s very own Hula Burger, which consisted of a pineapple slice covered in cheese. Even the light fasting practiced by the more devoted Catholics is back in paleo style: Intermittent fasting has been shown in animal studies to prolong lifespan and increase insulin.
The sacrificial season’s enduring relevance surely contains more lessons about mass psychology and individual behavior, but if you need more evidence that Lent is the OG of diets, consider this: It takes up just the right amount of time. Though online self-improvement gospel suggests that it takes 21 days to form a habit, 40 days — not to mention a community of accountability, and the foreboding sense of a disappointed God — turns out to work pretty well, too.