Why People Don't Eat Meat During Lent

Starting on Ash Wednesday in early February through Easter, Lent is a time of penance and prayer. While almsgiving and abstaining from certain activities are also part of it, the Lenten fast is the central practice meant to commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert before the crucifixion. Though the timing and stringency of the rules have varied over the years, the idea of not eating meat on holy days within the observance period has remained relatively fixed.

According to a 2015 Pew Research study, roughly half of Catholics and a third of cultural Catholics report giving up something for Lent. And though what one can choose to abstain from can range from gossip and shopping to profanity and social media, leaving off a favorite food or beverage is one of the most common ways people observe Lent. Not eating meat is also practiced to various degrees, with Catholics and Orthodox Christians differing on what foods the fast applies to. Fish is generally allowed since they are cold-blooded, but there were times when fish protein was included in the fast. Some argue that eating reptiles and amphibians, like alligators, would be acceptable during the Lenten fast.

Like the practice of hiding plastic babies in Mardi Gras cakes, abstaining from meat during Lent also has an interesting history that folds in religious beliefs, mythology, and some surprising socioeconomic reasons. Ultimately, it's a form of penance, but there are several reasons why people don't eat meat during Lent.

Avoiding meat comes from the Christian tradition of fasting

Fasting stems from one of the oldest Christian traditions — abstinence. Initially, every Friday was a day of fasting to mark the day of crucifixion. Over time, this was limited to high holy days like Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the Fridays of Lent, while followers were recommended to abstain from an activity of their choosing on other Fridays of the year. Lenten fasting guidelines refer to "flesh meat," which includes the meat of mammals and poultry. As per the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, since Jesus sacrificed his flesh for humanity, the act is honored by not consuming flesh meat on Fridays.

In a broader sense, Lent is a time of penance. During olden times, particularly in the Mediterranean region of early Christianity, meat was a luxury — even more so during the winter months — which justified abstaining from it during Lent. In "A Reflection on Lenten Fasting," Rev. Daniel Merz explains how fasting also signifies a reversal of the act of eating, which led to the original sin when Adam and Eve ate the apple. The reverend also mentions that fasting, in addition to being an act of self-discipline, also signifies reserving resources for the poor.

The Orthodox Church follows a more stringent fasting regimen for the 40-day Lenten season. Meat, eggs, dairy, and even some fish are forbidden. Catholics are advised to abstain from the meat of warm-blooded animals and birds, but only on Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays.

The significance of fish during Lent

Historically, one of the main reasons fish was acceptable during Lent is because it was regarded as less of a luxury than meat, representing a kind of sacrifice. Regarded as basic and essential as bread loaves, fish bears symbolic significance as it's attached to the Biblical miracles.

Eating fish on sacred holidays goes back to the pre-Christian era. The early Christian calendar was laden with meatless fasting days, raising the demand for fish to such an extent that it became an engine for the growth of the global fishing industry. An article by Frederick W. Bell published in 1968 in The American Economic Review titled "The Pope and the Price of Fish," explores how the commercial fishing industries of several countries were impacted in 1966 when Catholic Bishops in the U.S. terminated meatless Fridays, thus reducing the demand for fish because people were then allowed to eat meat.

And while on the subject of how fasting and the economics of fish are intertwined, perhaps the most observable manifestation today is McDonald's enduring Filet-O-Fish. The crispy fish burger on the chain's menu was the brainchild of Lou Groen, owner of the first McDonald's in the Cincinnati area, to counter plummeting burger sales during Lent.