All about Mardi Gras!

All about Mardi Gras!

Lundi svelte, mardi gras, mercredi mince, jeudi bouffi, vendredi maigre, samedi arrondi et dimanche dodu.

When you hear someone talk about “Mardi Gras” what are the first things that come to mind? Most people would probably imagine scenes of Mardi Gras celebrations with plastic beads, parades, loud music, and crowded parties. However, Mardi Gras is much more than a simple street party. It stems from a tradition that signaled the start forty-day fast. So where maybe, at first, you thought of beads, parties and lots of food when thinking of Mardi Gras, it is actually all about fasting. The roots of this event and the forty-day fast go back to Europe during the Middle Ages, and the tradition we know as ‘Carnival’.

The earliest references suggest that Carnival originated in Rome. ‘Carnem-levare’, as it was called, was celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday. Its purpose was to come together and eat meat, before the beginning of Catholic Lent (the forty-day fast leading up to Easter). Hence the term ‘carnem-levare’ which means “to abstain from flesh/meat”. This celebration gained popularity and spread to other neighbouring European communities. Eventually, the name was shorted by the Italians into Carnevale (i.e. “flesh farewell”, the English term is Carnival), but other terms were also used, such as the German ‘Fasching’ (i.e. “fasting”), and the French ‘Mardi Gras’ (i.e. “fat Tuesday”). Nevertheless, all of these names still refer to the “feast before the fast.”

During Lent, fasters not only abstain from meat, but also from any dairy products and eggs. However, fasters are free to eat as much as they please from other foods. Therefore this fast occurs with minimal to no reduction in total caloric intake since the intake of fiber and carbohydrates increases (for example due to an increased intake of bread, fruits and vegetables).


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While religious fasts are participated in predominantly for spiritual reasons, they also have the potential to influence one’s physical health. Sarri et al., (2003) studied these physical effects in a longitudinal study following 120 Greek adults. Of these 120 adults, 60 fasted whereas 60 did not. In this study they measured pre- and post-fasting blood collection, serum lipoprotein and anthropometric measurements. They showed that some of the favorable effects of fasting (compared to non-fasting) include the lowering of body mass (1.5% lower end-BMI for fasters), total cholesterol (12.5% lower for fasters), LDL-cholesterol (15.9% lower for fasters), and the LDL-cholesterol/HDL-cholesterol ratio (end-ratio 6.5% lower in fasters). In the end, Sarri et al., (2003) concluded that fasting periods contribute to a reduction in the blood lipid profile including a non-significant reduction in HDL cholesterol and could have a possible impact on obesity.

So all in all, Mardi Gras or ‘fat Tuesday’ is not at all about ‘fat’, but it rather signals the start of a fast that may keep you lean and healthy!


Sarri, K. O., Tzanakis, N. E., Linardakis, M. K., Mamalakis, G. D., & Kafatos, A. G. (2003). Effects of Greek Orthodox Christian Church fasting on serum lipids and obesity. BMC Public Health, 3(1), 16.

Trepanowski, J. F., & Bloomer, R. J. (2010). The impact of religious fasting on human health. Nutr J, 9(57).

Walkup, N., & Gomez, A. (2004). Carnaval! (p. 768). B. Mauldin (Ed.). Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Maartje Mulders

Phd Student

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