Giving up booze makes for a healthier Lent, data from Ochsner program finds

A woman sits with her arms extended while another woman places a needle in her arm to draw blood.
Phlebotomist Skylar Normand takes blood from Danita Noel as part of the pre-participation measurements of the Alcohol Free for 40 program at Ochsner Lafayette General Orthopedic Hospital in Lafayette, La., on Thursday, February 15, 2024.

It’s no secret that Louisiana likes to drink. 

“In our area, it just seems that alcohol — and food — are just so prevalent wherever you go,” said Robert Kallam, 58, a Lafayette attorney and one of 57 participants of this year’s Ochsner’s alcohol-free Lent program.

As part of the program, participants go through a series of measurements — weight, body fat, bloodwork — right after Mardi Gras, and then again after 40 days of abstinence from alcohol.

“People lose weight, have more energy, the mental clarity — that’s a big one. You’ll see changes in mental composition and body composition as well,” said Yvette Perrier Quartz, a dietician who has been leading the offshoot of the statewide program in Lafayette since its inception here in 2020.

Since then, Quartz said she’s seen participation grow. This year, a total of 525 across the state are ditching alcohol for the Lenten initiative.

While it’s not unusual for people to give up certain vices, for Lent, she said being part of a group helps participants stick with the program. “A lot of people like the accountability and the camaraderie,” Quartz said. There’s a Facebook group where people in the program can exchange tips and experiences. Now in its fourth year, word of mouth has become a significant part of the marketing strategy.

Retention numbers show that it’s working. In 2019, 63% of participants completed both their pre- and post-participation measurements. That number dipped significantly in 2020, when the pandemic delayed the latter by several months, but shot up to 86% a year later.

Mariah Breaux is one of several women who came to the Ochsner Lafayette General Orthopedic Hospital straight from their mahjong circle at the public library’s south branch on Thursday afternoon. 

Now in her second year as a participant, Breaux hopes to see some of the same results she saw her first year. “I lost some weight, my labs were better, my cholesterol went down,” Breaux said. “I felt better.”

Molly Kimball, founder of Ochsner’s Eat Fit campaign, first proposed the initiative as a self-experiment for people to join. “It really was my own curiosity, too, that very first year as — let’s see what happens inside and out if we give up alcohol for this duration,” she said. 

This is what drew first-time participant Danita Noel, 64, another mahjong player, to the program. “I just find it fascinating to see what’s going on inside the body,” she said. 

Nine years since Ochsner Health launched it, the program has yielded plenty of data. An analysis by a data scientist, who participated in the program herself. showed significant reductions in blood pressure, weight, fat, liver enzymes, total cholesterol and increased vitamin B12 among participants. 

A woman stands on a scale, another woman in scrubs stands next to her.
A participant in a voluntary post-Mardi Gras alcohol abstinence program is weighed in at Ochsner Lafayette General Orthopedic Hospital in Lafayette, La., on Thursday, February 15, 2024.

Not all participants stay completely abstinent. Melissa Heinitz Saunier, 31, a physical therapist at the orthopedic hospital where both pre- and post-abstinence measurements are conducted, said she still drinks on occasion during the 40 days, but that the program has given her an opportunity to reduce her drinking — and not be judged for it.

“I can blame it on the program,” said Saunier, who pointed out that it can often be difficult to abstain from alcohol in social settings because of peer pressure. After three years of participating in the program, Saunier said it’s become a known thing among her friends, and there’s less questioning of her decision to abstain. “But at first, it was tough — you kind of have to explain yourself,” she said. 

For Kallam, a practicing Catholic like many other participants, this isn’t his first time giving up drinking for lent, with mixed results. Of the several times he tried, life often ended up getting in the way. This year likely won’t be less challenging, with a few weddings on the calendar for him and his wife to attend during their period of abstinence.

“I’m sure that first crawfish boil will be pretty tough as well,” he said, laughing. “But I think we can make it happen.”