Gluttony. It’s not a word we commonly hear or read in conversation anymore. We may merely think of it as a “fat-shaming” synonym for overeating. But the seven capital (or “deadly”) sins are basically good desires and emotions that have grown beyond reason and necessity to become traps for the soul and drivers of sinful behavior. Although obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., the sin of gluttony has more ramifications than weight gain. I begin this series on the deadly sins with gluttony because it’s the one from which I suffer the most.
Need, Want, and Desire
First, let’s talk about need, want, and desire. We tend to use these terms carelessly as if they all meant roughly the same thing. Love songs are notorious for such mixing of terms, while modern marketing methods depend on blurring the lines. But there are slightly different senses to each word that express themselves in different idiomatic ways, especially in British English:
- Desire: I wish or prefer to have X, or for X to take place.
- Want: I lack a sufficiency of X.
- Need: Something good or important depends on my having (a sufficiency of) X; without (more) X, catastrophe awaits.
Not everything we wish for is something of which we lack a sufficiency; not everything of which we lack a sufficiency is vital to our lives, security, comfort, or prosperity. Food, of course, is one of the most basic human needs. We have to consume so many calories to survive and carry out other tasks necessary for survival. We must consume more if we engage in activities that make life more enjoyable. And when we consume less than we burn in activity, our bodies begin to consume themselves, burning fat — and some muscle — to fill the deficiency.
Gluttony and Obesity
Before going further, let me speak of my experience: I am morbidly obese.
Morbid obesity, by the definition of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is 50 – 100% or 100+ pounds above one’s ideal body weight. Generally, healthy weights fit within a body-mass index (BMI) range of 22 – 25; a BMI of 30+ is considered obese and 40+ morbidly obese. At my absolute worst, about 10 years ago, I weighed 324 lbs. (147 kg., BMI 49.3). As of this writing, I am about 290 lbs. (132 kg., BMI 44.0) and on an aggressive calorie-reduction program I’ve used with some success before.
However, I am not “on a diet.” I’m in recovery from gluttony.
In preparing for my program, I began to connect the dots between chronic overeating and substance abuse problems like alcoholism. At that point, I realized that the word diet has taken on the implication of something temporary, something you do only so long as is required to reach an ideal weight. But while losing 125 – 135 pounds may (temporarily) end the obesity, it won’t “cure” the gluttony. The attention I have to pay to tracking and recording my food is the way I have to live for the rest of my life. One day at a time, and all that.
If anyone should be sensitive to “fat-shaming”, it’s me. And I will agree that abusing and disrespecting the obese is not only wrong but counterproductive, as it only reinforces the lack of self-love that drives our self-destructive eating habits. Still, obesity is self-destructive. Gluttony is a sin, not only because it abuses a good process and misuses the gifts of the earth, but also because it mistreats a person God loves. If I don’t have the right to harm others, how can I have a “right” to destroy myself? How can everyone deserve my charity except me?
And how can I show charity to others when I show none for myself?
The Scarcity Mindset
In a previous article on lotteries and wealth, I mentioned a comment made by a friend who’s a recovering alcoholic: “… [S]carcity is a mindset characteristic of addiction. [Addicts] have to grab as much as they can in case it dries up. They don’t trust that there is plenty.” Think of the reports you see in the news of store shelves emptied by customers of food and bottled water prior to a massive oncoming storm. When you’re convinced a resource is or will become scarce, self-interest prompts you to hoard or consume as much as you can.
However, food in the U.S. isn’t really scarce. If in actuality we don’t produce enough food to feed the whole world two times over, we do produce so much that we waste about 30 – 40% of our supply. We may grow food more efficiently, but we use it very inefficiently. The scarcity is in access: Food production, distribution, and retail all have costs, so you can only get as much food as you can pay for. My concern here, though, is neither economics nor social justice; the question is, why would gluttons not trust that there’s plenty of food?
The foods we eat generally tend to be the foods we grew up eating — comfort food: food prepared in traditional ways that remind you of home, family, friends, and good times. They also tend to have more calories and more carbohydrates. The association of the food we eat with the memories they evoke constitute a strong incentive to keep eating them even after we grow less active and our basal metabolisms slow down. As well, offering plenty of food is a part of hospitality in many cultures; our restaurant industry plays on this imperative by offering large portions.
But food doesn’t love. Food doesn’t accept. No matter how much we eat, the emotional associations they evoke aren’t sufficient in themselves to satisfy our hunger for reassurance, our need to feel good about ourselves. Obese people, like substance abusers, are generally people who haven’t developed true self-assurance or the ability to draw their satisfaction from other sources. The true scarcity is within us: desert souls in need of seeds and irrigation.
Other Forms of Gluttony
Going further, gluttony doesn’t only manifest in overeating. In the Catholic Encyclopedia, Joseph Delaney quotes a verse handed down by the Scholastic theologians naming the five ways St. Thomas Aquinas held that eating can misuse food: praepropere, laute, nimis, ardenter, studiose (in English, “too hastily, [too] refined or luxurious, too much, [too] passionately, [too] studiously”).
For instance, in the movie When Harry Met Sally…, Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) gives excruciatingly precise instructions to servers describing just how her food should be prepared and presented, which leads Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) to tag her as “high-maintenance.” This is close to the Scholastics’ meaning of studiose: what we would call “picky” or “fussy”. “I like things how I like them,” Sally explains with quiet hauteur. Her demand for a particular kind of perfection not only makes extra, unnecessary work for others but also diminishes her capacity for gratitude. (Simply another way “perfect” is the enemy of “good enough.”)
“There are people starving in China,” parents of my generation used to say to children not content with their dinners. For years, I thought my parents were concerned about money going down the disposal; perhaps this was partially on their minds. But now I realize the true thrust was that I had food to waste, for which I ought to have been more thankful than I was. And I can recall many days when all I had in my pantry were rice, ramen noodles, and Kraft macaroni and cheese, with cans of tuna for protein.
Why didn’t poverty teach me to be grateful for plenty?
The scarcity mindset of Gluttony, with its unreasonable fear of future paucity, destroys gratitude for present abundances, like Sally’s desire for the perfect prevents her recognition of the good. To be grateful for what we have is to treat it properly, with respect. To gulp food rapidly, to constantly crave novelty or delicacy or emotional fulfillment, to eat as if only your taste buds matter — all those show that what we want (that is, what we lack) is not food for the body but food for the soul. Physically, we’re growing more obese; spiritually, however, we’re starving.
The immoderate desire for food stems from our translation of emotional and spiritual needs into material wants. Food and drink, as I said before, are among the most basic of human needs. Humans can survive and even thrive as ascetics or as continent celibates. Barring the miraculous, however, we can’t survive for long deprived of nutrition or hydration. Nevertheless, we must remain grounded in the fact that food and drink only satisfy particular physical needs, and then only for now. They can’t cure our dissatisfaction with ourselves or our lives.
It isn’t wrong to enjoy food, to try new flavors or have occasional sweets or throw dinner parties or create esthetically pleasing presentations. But one key to moderation, the virtue opposed to gluttony, is to remember that eating and drinking are neither ends in themselves nor proper means to any ends other than refueling and rehydrating. The other key is to remain grateful to God for the food and drink you have, even if it isn’t plentiful and especially when it’s abundant, rather than obsess over the food you desire. For it may not be food you really lack.
Take it from one who has truly known want.