When considering the epidemic of obesity across the West, we are not encouraged to view the problem as a failure of individual willpower, but as the result of complex causes ranging from childhood behaviours to genetic predisposition, with the additional catch-all of “lifestyle issues”.
The basic biological fact that fat is the storage of surplus energy indicates a fundamental link between obesity and consuming more food than is required. But the equation of energy-in minus energy-expended is often distorted and blurred by a host of uncertainties: don’t some people put on weight more easily than others? Aren’t some of us genetically determined to store energy thanks to the faminous conditions of remote ancestors? Isn’t it true that certain foods distort our appetites, and that hormonal dynamics complicate our search for satiety?
All this and more may well be true: the battle-ground between appetite and weight-control is complex and convoluted. So perhaps it is not the right battle to be fighting?
If questions of “willpower” are considered faux pas in relation to obesity, imagine how well the allegation of gluttony would be received. Yet the theory of gluttony might offer a response to obesity that bypasses the otherwise interminable struggle between our appetite for food and our desire for physical health and integrity.
The problem with most approaches to dieting and weight-loss is that in various ways they try to tell us we can have our cake and eat it. As many and varied as such diets are, what they have in common is an attempt to satisfy appetite in addition to decreasing overall consumption. Some diets seek to control the overall quantity of food consumed, without restricting the kinds of foods available, through various forms of calorie-counting. Others limit the type of food, yet leave quantity unaffected, for example: high-protein diets that regard carbohydrates as the true enemy of weight-loss, and rely on the satiating power of high-protein meals to diminish appetite.
These diets can work for some people, perhaps especially when their strict rules or unusual regimes help to break established eating habits and weaken the appetite through sheer unfamiliarity. The novelty of cutting out staple carbohydrates can radically challenge one’s relationship with food, but our appetites are nothing if not adaptable, and we soon find new ways to sate them on different fodder.
For some of us, the war between weight and appetite needs to be an all-or-nothing proposition. If we’re to have war, it needs to be total war, and appetite must be not merely rebuffed but routed. We need not only to change our eating habits, but to recognise the fundamental psychological and spiritual discord at the heart of a dysfunctional relationship with food.
As someone who has been more or less overweight all his teenage and adult life, two bitter yet liberating realisations have finally made a difference. The first is that I am a hedonist, materially if not formally. Food has been an immense source of pleasure, enjoyment, and unadulterated sensory satisfaction for most of my life, and any countervailing desire to keep fit and healthy through combinations of diet and exercise have been undermined by my visceral commitment to the escapist allure of eating.
A spiritual dysfunction
That the pleasure of eating serves as a surprisingly rich and enticing escape from the dreariness and banality of everyday life proved to me that self-indulgence was not merely a physical dysfunction but a spiritual one. For someone who spends nearly every waking moment thinking about things, the uncomplicated enjoyment of some moreish snack or delectable home-made dish offers a kind of peaceful respite from the interminable whirring of cognition. Or as the 4th Century ascetic monk John Cassian wrote in rather less affirming terms:
“nor can the mind, when choked with the weight of food, keep the guidance and government of the thoughts… but excess of all kinds of food makes it weak and uncertain, and robs it of all its power of pure and clear contemplation.”
Recognising the escapism in eating dispelled the illusion that I was simply enjoying my meal, a non-purposive act that mirrors the wholesome integrity of a home-made lasagne or the richness of a goat curry. Instead, I was seizing the opportunity to gratify my appetite, and in so doing gained temporary yet total escape from whatever problems, threats or weariness life might present.
Perhaps this is why people so often recoil from the reality of being overweight? Very few people have the temerity to say “I am overweight because I eat more than I need, and I eat more than I need because the pleasure of it distracts me from other concerns, or the dullness of life more generally.” Such a statement would imply a degree of self-awareness and honesty that is not concomitant with escapist hedonism. It’s hard to enjoy an escapist pleasure while thinking about the bleak or unpleasant reality from which you are escaping.
As such, being overweight is for many people like a mysterious illness or unfortunate predicament that just happened to befall them while they were otherwise occupied. In a sense this is true: your body gained weight while your mind was lost in the pleasures of the eating.
Denying the appetite
If this allegation of escapist hedonism seems harsh, it’s still kinder than Cassian, who refers to “the vice of satiety” and, quoting scripture, notes that “the cause of the overthrow and wantonness of Sodom was not drunkenness through wine, but fulness of bread”, and wonders:
“what shall we think of those who with a vigorous body dare to partake of meat and wine with unbounded licence, taking not just what their bodily frailty demands, but what the eager desire of the mind suggests.”
Nor is Cassian alone among spiritual authorities in prescribing such an uncompromising approach to the appetite for food and the desire for satiety. Confucius makes the same point from a less ascetic perspective:
"He who aims to be a man of complete virtue in his food does not seek to gratify his appetite, nor in his dwelling place does he seek the appliances of ease; he is earnest in what he is doing, and careful in his speech; he frequents the company of men of principle that he may be rectified:– such a person may be said indeed to love to learn."
More broadly the religious practice of fasting is typically understood not merely as a sacrificial or ritual act but as an ascetic effort to diminish the power of our appetites. In simple terms, refusing to gratify the appetite sets a powerful precedent for how we choose to relate to our own desires: uncritically, self-indulgent, or with dispassion borne of higher principles?
Enjoyment is a choice
Yet the recognition of escapism is not enough to change the habits of a lifetime, even if it does provide the motive for such a change. What makes a difference in terms of daily habits is the realisation that “enjoyment of eating” is not a universal, fixed, and unassailable property. Those of us who overeat tend to imagine that some people are just better at resisting their own appetites. It never occurs to us that some people simply don’t enjoy eating as much as we do, at least not in the full throes of an over-indulged appetite. The enjoyment of our favourite food is not passive but active; we actively enjoy the food, putting effort and care into our appreciation of taste and texture. We develop rituals and emotional cues; we covet the food and nurture a craving for it, drawing on anticipation and the particulars of circumstance as much as the flavour of the food itself.
But some people – and we ourselves when sick or in pain – simply don’t enjoy food to this degree; and if we did not enjoy food so much we would not find such pleasure in the dynamic of building and then sating our appetite.
Each time I go to eat something I now ask myself: would I eat this if I didn’t enjoy eating? If the effort of eating outweighed the pleasure, why would I eat more than was legitimately required? Such questions can put us in the mindset of a person who doesn’t enjoy eating, and cut off the appetite before it has a chance to revel in the escapism of food.
The dynamic of vice
Without enjoyment, food loses its escapist value. If that outcome seems horrifically bleak then all the better. If the thought of life without indulgent eating terrifies you, then perhaps you aren’t living at your best in the first place? What on earth is wrong with the rest of our lives that we rely so profoundly on the pleasures of the palate? This is by no means a question of blame or shame so much as awareness of a pervasive physical and spiritual problem. Curiously, even the most ardent moralists in the West seem to have neglected gluttony, focusing with some justification on the manifestations of lust instead. Yet as Cassian notes:
“He then will never be able to check the motions of a burning lust, who cannot restrain the desires of the appetite… For of all virtues the nature is but one and the same, although they appear to be divided into many different kinds and names…And so he is proved to possess no virtue perfectly, who is known to have broken down in some part of them.”
To recapitulate: gluttony entails both an escapist flight from a dull or unpleasant reality, and an actively inflated enjoyment of eating. The two are connected, nor can we expect to subdue our over-indulged appetites without addressing both aspects of the problem: the aversion from which we flee and the false comfort to which we are drawn.
Like any of the vices gluttony promises to free us from our troubles, even troubles as slight as boredom and procrastination. But the character of the vices is such that they cannot offer real freedom or relief – they only displace the problem, magnifying and embellishing it in the process. Those of us afflicted with gluttonous habits may feel that life without self-indulgent eating will be drab, joyless, and dull. Yet eating more will not change the substance of our lives, and escaping into the pleasures of food merely distracts us from the real challenge of life. If life without self-indulgence seems disappointing or burdensome, then our food-oriented escapism is holding us back from truly meaningful change.
On a societal level our fascination with food, including the growing commercialisation of “gourmet” via endless iterations of celebrity chefs and reality TV shows, approaches the level of a culturally sanctioned and economically encouraged indulgence of gluttony. Like a macrocosm of the individual’s struggle with escapist appetite, gluttony on a societal level implies a culture bereft of higher aims and more potent goods. It suggests a broader spiritual malaise where so much time, energy and attention is devoted to the appreciation of food, with corresponding physical maladies including the epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Putting the blame onto corporate interests – Big Food’s ever-increasing serving sizes and sugar, salt, and fat content – is most certainly a necessary step in correcting the societal drift toward obesity. But on the individual level, nothing could be more significant than a full appreciation of vice and virtue amidst the struggle to find meaning and happiness in our lives.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com