Immoderate Desires I: The Deadly Sin of Gluttony

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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.

Conclusion

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.

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9 thoughts on “Immoderate Desires I: The Deadly Sin of Gluttony”

  1. Pingback: Immoderate Desires IV: The Deadly Sin of Envy - Catholic Stand

  2. God bless you in your struggle. Thank you for giving attention to all the aspects of gluttony. Though I am sure many already know this, a person can be of normal weight and fit and still struggle with gluttony. I have never been overweight yet gluttony is still something I struggle with. I think our culture has a hard time finding peace in the middle ground of temperance. People seem to either be in camp overindulgence or camp I-can’t-eat-that. Unfortunately, the I-can’t-eat-that adherents are usually respected and even admired while the overindulgence folks are shamed. I think the struggle with gluttony becomes easier when we stop obsessing over food in whatever way we are tempted to. Also, following the liturgical seasons has been a huge help for me. I don’t feel guilty about feasting when the time is right anymore because I know that there will be times of fasting and just those “ordinary days” where I just eat normal. I also have found that eating with others is a huge help. We have our set meals at the table and that is that. Maybe one snack during the day, but other than that we are not grazing around the house or just eating while we’re doing other things. For single people this is obviously harder; in family life there can be a sense of accountability–I want to be a good example for my children and I don’t want to feel shame in the presence of my husband, so I probably shouldn’t have that unnecessary second helping.

  3. Pingback: Immoderate Desires II: The Deadly Sin of Lust - Catholic Stand

  4. You are wasting your time trying to lose weight by reducing calories. It works short term but as evidenced by the vast majority who have tried that approach within a short period they are back where they started or even heavier and the reason is hunger. Why do you thing Biggest Loser never has a reunion meeting for it’s contestants? The cause of the obesity epidemic is the high sugar/diet in processed foods. If you want to lose weight switch to a Ketogenic diet ( low carb, moderate protein and high fat) for the rest of your life, where you will never be hungry and combine it with intermittent fasting, eg only eat during a 4 hour or 8 hour window each day. I know it works because that is what I do and have lost and kept off over 90lbs and I am never hungry on bacon and eggs, cheese, cheesecake, cream, steak, fish, chicken, low carb pizza, avocado, leafy greens , broccoli, cauliflower and numerous other items. Almost anything high carb can be replicated in low carb. Even during Lenten fasting I am not hungry because, being in a permanent state of ketosis my body just burns of any excess fat for energy. Your body is meant to be the temple of the Holy Spirit, not a Cathedral!

    1. Anthony S. Layne

      Michael, I appreciate your intentions. However, as a matter of sheer courtesy if nothing else, you should never begin a pitch like this by saying “You’re gonna fail” or “You can’t succeed.” If you listen after you say it, you’ll hear the loud slam of the other person’s mind shutting you out.

      It’s interesting you mention The Biggest Loser because that program is to weight loss what The Bachelor/Bachelorette is to marriage: a collection of false and unrealistic expectations mass-marketed for others’ amusement. I didn’t become obese overnight, so why should I expect to lose all this weight in 10 – 12 weeks?

  5. Great information! I am certainly a participant in this vice. The solution my husband and I found began on Ash Wednesday last year (Saint Valentine’s Day). Instead of going to dinner to eat and imbibe in adult beverages, we fasted and abstained. The next 40+ days (including Sundays) were spent watching portions, low carb intake, and abstaining from adult beverages. We did this (for the first time), not for weight loss but in respect for the Temples of the Holy Spirit we are. After moderately celebrating Easter, we found that our new way of life had become a healthy habit. I began intermittent fasting and cooking Keto-conscious meals. Now, 13 months later, I am down 80 lb and my husband is also at a better weight. We continue this way of life, with all of its temptations, with the spiritual and obedient implications in mind. God bless.

    The beginning of our spiritual and physical health is documented here: http://catholiclifeinourtimes.com/keto-diet-works/

  6. Gluttony is also a problem for me. At times it is emotional eating. Other times it is just wanting to sample what is in front of me. Some of the time it is physical and feels quite overwhelming. I began a very low carb eating style with intermittent fasting. I was losing weight quickly but the desire to eat late at night, contrary to the intermittent fasting, was overwhelming but was probably biologically based. I have a low thyroid function and my symptoms worsened substantially with this kind if diet. Insulin is required for the conversion of the inactive thyroid hormone to the active form. So for me there is some overating from other reasons than gluttony. I am looking for strategies to combat gluttony this lent. I must regulate my eating by avoiding the near occasions of sin. I must not buy certain foods at all nor go to certain places where there is an opportunity to overeat. I must be very conscious of emotional eating and find a strategy for it. A glass of water, prayer, reading something interesting about the saints in an attempt to distract me. The other more biologically based urges are more complicated. It must be a combination of offering it up but also trying to make sure my body is getting the nutrients it needs and to be conscious of what I am eating so blood sugar disregulation dies not cause biological urges to overeat.

  7. Anthony, bless you and thank you for your article. Our family is working on reorganizing our food habits, health issues and spending. I ran into a reference to exogenous ketones for appetite suppression, fat burning and mental clarity to aid in intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting has been a blessing in terms of growing in self control, losing weight and metabolic benefits. It has both spiritual and health value. It will be interesting to see if adding some exogenous ketones helps us to keep moving in that direction. God bless!

  8. Pingback: ASH VVEDNESDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

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