Go vegetarian on Fridays for your health, your faith and the Earth

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WASHINGTON (CNS) - Catholics who abstain from meat on Fridays are not only taking part in a spiritual exercise but they also are taking steps to improve their health and the environment, according to nutritional and sustainability experts.

Catholics worldwide are familiar with abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent, but since the fall of 2011, Catholics in Wales and England have been asked by their bishops to make this practice a yearlong effort, reviving the countries' previous Friday penance regulations, which were relaxed in 1984.

A statement announcing the new regulation said: "The bishops wish to re-establish the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity."

Although the new regulation only applies to England and Wales, it reinstates the long-forgotten Catholic tradition of Friday penances. Friday, the day of Jesus' death, was observed as a day of penance in the Catholic Church until reforms put in place after the Second Vatican Council.

At that time, instead of asking Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays, bishops worldwide allowed them to choose their own penance. Without a set penance, the yearlong meatless Friday practice was quickly forgotten.

Catholics in England and Wales who already don't eat meat are advised to give up another food. Reducing intake of refined grains, added sugars or saturated fatty acids and trans fatty acids for one day can be beneficial, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Those who decide to go meatless - even for a day - should keep in mind that a meat-free diet does not automatically equal "healthy." The American Heart Association explains that a vegetarian diet can be unhealthy if it contains too many calories or saturated fat and not enough nutrients. The group advises selecting meat substitutes such as dried beans, peas, lentils or tofu for entrees, salads or soups.

When those who frequently eat meat give up this food even once a week, the health and environmental impact is significant. A 2010 study from England's University of Oxford and funded by Friends of the Earth, an international grassroots organization, found that more than 45,000 lives each year could be saved in the United Kingdom alone if people cut their meat intake to three servings a week, decreasing incidents of heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Meatless Fridays predates the popular grass-roots movement Meatless Mondays, a secular nonprofit movement that seeks to reduce meat consumption for personal health and environmental benefits. Meatless Mondays was launched by the Johns Hopkins and Columbia University schools of public health in 2003.

The Meatless Mondays website says reduced meat intake can limit cancer risk, reduce heart disease, fend off diabetes, curb obesity, lengthen lifespan and lower fat intake. Environmentally, cutting out just one day of meat decreases greenhouse gas emissions, minimizes water usage and reduces fossil fuel dependence, reports the site.

Catholics taking part in Meatless Fridays for penance and self-sacrifice reasons, might be surprised to realize they also are helping the environment.

According to the Office of Sustainability at the University of Notre Dame, if every American who eats meat daily gave up meat one day a week, it would be the equivalent of taking 8 million cars off the roads each year.

Rachel Novick, the education and outreach program manager at Notre Dame's sustainability office, said if Catholics worldwide abstained from meat one day each week, global carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by 72 million metric tons per year - the equivalent of the total carbon dioxide emissions of the entire country of Chile.

The way she sees it, the practice of faith and environmentalism can't be separated.

Reducing meat consumption would have the greatest positive impact on the poor, who contribute the least to the problems and do not have the resources to adapt, Novick explained. More food and water would be available to them, there would be a decrease in deforestation, which destroys ecosystems, and the impact of climate change would lessen.

"Sustainability is integral to a number of fundamental Catholic teachings," she said. "We are called to stewardship of the earth and we are called to solidarity with the poor, especially with all of humankind. Currently, we are using way more resources in the Western world than is really our share."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970