How to Vanquish Controlling Influences

Mardis Gras
Mardis Gras

Childhood Obesity News is exploring the idea that for a large part of the Western world, the religious season of Lent has served as a trial run for quitting sugar. For some, it has no doubt been inspirational, and led to permanently sugar-free lives. But for others, the thought never occurs – “I’ve been 40 days without sweets—maybe I should double down and go for 80!”

The season of devout abstention is not the ideal rehearsal hall in which to train for a sugar-free life. In some branches of Christianity, Sundays don’t count as part of Lent. A regular “cheat day” would mess up any serious attempt to become unhooked from a substance, so anyone following that schedule would never have the opportunity to taste real freedom from the addictor.

No doubt there are always people who have issues with other tenets of the religion, and who add the idea of giving up something for Lent to other dissatisfactions, feelings of being coerced, and so on.

Counterproductively (for potential sugar addicts), what follows Lent is the day when loving parents are encouraged to give their children baskets full of high-calorie treats. Weeks of deprivation are rewarded with a cache of confections. In fact, Lent also begins with a blowout. Fat Tuesday, more widely known as Mardi Gras, is a goodbye to pleasure before the six weeks of doing without. In this tradition, withdrawal pain is bracketed by two feast days, and the foreknowledge of the limited time period is an important element of the practice.

A Useful Comparison

Over the centuries, Lent has provided millions of people with the impetus to try giving up sweets. Sometimes the separation doesn’t work out, and sometimes it does. Either way, there may or may not be a direct, cause-and-effect relationship with weight loss.

Maybe giving up sweets for Lent will not result directly in immediate slimming. That would depend on a lot of individual and cultural factors. But consider it a psychological exercise equivalent to, well, physical exercise. There is even dissent over the usefulness of physical activity. For instance, The Early Bird Study seems to indicate that exercise does help not overweight children lose weight.

On the other hand, Dr. Colin Higgs, who founded the Active Start activity plan for children, lists the promotion of healthy weight as only one of many benefits gained from exercise, which also does 14 other things, and:

… a child who’s busy developing good brain function, coordination, social skills, gross motor skills, leadership, imagination, confidence, good posture and balance, a strong frame, a resistance to stress, and all those other positive attributes will consequently be a happy and well-coping kid.

The point is, all of those benefits create fertile ground for the growth of a desire to pursue a healthy weight. Likewise, a temporary period of abstinence from sweets can blossom, eventually, into a passion for health. Joshua Becker calls the things people give up for Lent “controlling influences,” and that very term might help to overcome resistance to change. When kids reach a certain age and begin thinking for themselves, they typically become, at least in theory, fiercely resistant to controlling influences.

When confronted with intervention designed to curb their obesity, it is likely that many young people perceive it as control imposed by adult authority figures. Even if they are miserably fat, the first impulse may very well be one of rebellion. Maybe one clue is to take that resistant energy and turn it back on itself. Maybe the secret is to re-frame the intervention as a key to the tools that can vanquish other “controlling influences” and put the child in the driver’s seat of her or his own life. Becker’s essay “The Opportunity of Lent” offers examples of the ways in which these indirect “side effects” can affect a person, and it isn’t even necessary to be religious.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Childhood Obesity and Activity,”, 10/21/10
Source: “The Opportunity of Lent,”, 02/22/12
Image by Infrogmation of New Orleans


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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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