Frequently Asked Questions About Fasting and Abstinence

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. And as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) tells us, “Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence.”

Seems pretty straightforward, right? But when it comes to fasting and abstinence, there are often a lot of questions and confusion about what that actually means. Don’t worry, we’re here to help! Below you’ll find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions regarding fasting and abstinence during Lent.

What is fasting?
Fasting is a practice of interior penance that trains us to deny our earthly appetites in order to make us more free to do the will of God. As Fr. Richard Simon, host of Father Simon Says™ explained, “Fasting is an exercise in freedom. The purpose of it is to train your will to do God’s will. To train your will to obey the Lord.”

When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. Liquids are allowed at any time, but no food should be eaten between meals. Fasting obligations apply to adults age 18 through 59.

What is abstinence?
For Roman Catholics during Lent, abstinence refers to abstaining (or refraining from) eating meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the Fridays of Lent. Those who are 14 years and older must abstain from meat on these days.

Are some people excused from fasting and abstinence requirements?
Yes! Per the USCCB: “Those that are excused from fast and abstinence outside the age limits include the physically or mentally ill including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes.  Also excluded are pregnant or nursing women.  In all cases, common sense should prevail, and ill persons should not further jeopardize their health by fasting.” If you cannot participate in fasting and abstinence for health reasons, find another way to practice penance!

What counts as meat on days of abstinence?
The US bishops explain, “Abstinence laws consider that meat comes only from animals such as chickens, cows, sheep or pigs — all of which live on land. Birds are also considered meat. Abstinence does not include meat juices and liquid foods made from meat.  Thus, such foods as chicken broth, consomme, soups cooked or flavored with meat, meat gravies or sauces, as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat are technically not forbidden.  However, moral theologians have traditionally taught that we should abstain from all animal-derived products (except foods such as gelatin, butter, cheese and eggs, which do not have any meat taste).  Fish are a different category of animal.  Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, (cold-blooded animals) and shellfish are permitted.”

What are some alternatives for Lenten fasting if I am excused from fasting from food?
If you are pregnant, nursing, ill, or outside the age limits of the fasting requirements, you are still encouraged to seek out other acts of penance and voluntary self-denial. You could give up your normal entertainment—music, social media, television, Netflix—and replace that time with prayer, spiritual reading, or quality time with loved ones. Or you could abstain from complaining, and instead spread some compliments. Check out this list of fasting alternatives for more ideas.

Is it a sin to break the Ash Wednesday or Good Friday fasts, or eat meat on days of abstinence?
In their Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence, the US bishops say that “No Catholic Christian will lightly excuse himself from so hallowed an obligation on the Wednesday which solemnly opens the Lenten season and on that Friday called “Good” because on that day Christ suffered in the flesh and died for our sins.” And regarding abstinence they say, “no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice.”

Monsignor Stuart Swetland, host of Go Ask Your Father™, explained, “To completely disobey the Church’s request on fasting and abstinence during Lent, for those who are bound by that, that is a serious sin. But the sin is disobedience. Jesus said, ‘Those who hear you, hear Me.’ So for those who are Catholic but completely ignore the Church, the bride of Christ, on these things, that is a serious sin.”

What are you doing for Lent? Sign up for Father Rocky’s 40 Lenten Lessons on the Mass!