Saturday, February 13, 2016

How to Survive a Dessert-free Lent

It started with just chocolate. For a good three years I would faithfully eradicate it from my diet for the entire 46 days of Lent, comforting myself with PayDay bars, oatmeal raisin cookies and ambitious scoops of ice cream in lieu of the humble squares of dark chocolate that I would typically eat to appease my sweet tooth.

Woe, my friends, was certainly not me.

Naturally the "sacrifice" needed to evolve. I could hardly qualify myself as a deprived soul when I was still able to eat behemoth slices of carrot cake, thick slabs of salted caramel shortbread bars and fistfuls of yogurt-covered raisins like I was somehow briefly #blessed with the metabolism of a teenage boy.  

So, five years ago I made the drastic decision to extend my Lenten pledge to include all dessert and dessert-like things. Beyond just the obvious items like cake and ice cream, I took it to the point where all pastries (croissants included) were off limits, along with the stacks of chocolate chip-studded buttermilk pancakes and thickly glazed donuts that I could conceivably qualify as "breakfast" rather than "dessert."

"I don't know how you do it," has been the universal response from friends, colleagues and family members, who have now become accustomed to watching me battle through my annual masochistic ritual while they carry on with their cookies and brownies undisturbed.

While I'd love to go ahead and lower my eyes in pain, and play the role of the bereft martyr that they make me out to be, I'd be lying if I failed to admit that it's become progressively easier over the years. Not just because my body no longer goes through the same withdrawal pangs as it once did (sugar addiction is real, y'all), but also because I've developed certain strategies that make the 46 days slightly more tolerable.

Because, well, I'm not a complete glutton (no pun intended) for punishment.

So, to address the aforementioned universal question that I've never completely answered beyond a shrug and smile, here's how I'm able to do it. 

1. Alcohol, and even more specifically, wine. Let's break it down. Grapes have natural sugars. When those natural sugars ferment, they turn into wine. While I tend to favor drier wines over, say, an off-dry Riesling that has a high residual sugar content, I still find that sipping a glass of sparkling brut Rosé or fruit-forward Syrah will help with my cravings. It feels indulgent, and, most importantly, keeps my mouth busy when I'm out to dinner with friends who are all digging their forks into a block of gooey bread pudding. Jerks.

2. Medjool Dates. If fruit is nature's candy, then Medjool dates are most certainly nature's caramel. I like to remove the pit, stuff the center with roasted cashews (almonds will also do quite nicely), and then sprinkle the top with flaky Maldon sea salt. It's the perfect little indulgent bite, and my saving grace during the Lenten season or, well, anytime I'm trying to cut back on my sugar intake.

3. Tea. When giving up any category of food, it's all about breaking the ritual, and making hot tea after a meal is a way that I've been able to combat the habit of eating a square of chocolate or something sweet when I've finished lunch or dinner. I'm not going to pretend that it's even remotely the same, but if you add a good splash of almond milk (at coffee shops I ask the barista to add an inch of steamed almond milk) and pick a tea like rooibos that has caramel undertones, the creaminess and richness of the tea's flavor does help in terms of satisfying the urge for something decadent. Also, it (again) keeps my mouth busy.

4. Avocado. When I stop eating dessert, the amount of fat I consume on a daily basis dramatically decreases - particularly since I do tend toward a more plant-based diet that is inherently lower in fat already. Because of this, I've found that in order to ensure that I do feel satisfied and am not lusting for rich desserts solely because I'm not getting enough calories, I do try to incorporate even more healthy fats into my diet, especially avocado. Partially because I also red heart emoji it and will jump on any excuse to eat half an avocado in a single sitting (with or without the toast that is so en vogue right now), but also because the smooth texture does offer a similar mouthfeel to ice cream, pudding, chocolate, frosting, etc. It's nature's butter, bitches.

5. Sweet Breakfasts. No, I didn't just renege on my aforementioned statement regarding chocolate chip pancakes and donuts. I'm referring to things like baked oatmeal, homemade granola with Greek yogurt and fruit, or a piece of toast with almond butter and jam. These all fall into the "fly zone" for me, and I've found that starting the day with something that has some level of natural sweetness will keep me from craving dessert for the rest of the day. Or, at the very least, until the moment someone eats a chocolate chip cookie in front of me, and I murder them with my eyes.