The idea of “gluttony” is not taken seriously in our contemporary culture.

Even reading or hearing word seems to conjure up a time and context that has passed us by.  Today, instead of invoking the judgmental overtones this word produces, we prefer to talk about serious overeating and obesity as the product of social structures: lack of access to healthy foods (especially for the poor), huge subsidies of sugar and corn to drive down the costs of food that is bad for us, our culture of inactivity (driving, video games, etc.), the market’s effect on how restaurants and grocery stores sell to customers, etc.

While these are all problems that deserve our utmost attention, we cannot forget that there is an important element of serious and fundamental personal responsibility on the part of the consumer.  For many of us who struggle with this issue (I speak as someone who used to weigh 380 lbs and who still struggles with making good food choices), what we decide to put into our mouths is (at least until vicious habits reach the debilitating stage of a disorder) up to us.  We are responsible for our freely-chosen actions.

The Church’s decision to include gluttony among the seven deadly sins has received support from contemporary science.  How one eats is dramatically and inextricably connected to one’s flourishing, and eating poorly can negatively affect nearly every aspect of our lives.  For many Americans, the most vicious cycle in which we find ourselves involves poor eating–and it is difficult to counteract this cycle given that, unlike sex and many other behaviors, eating is necessary to survive.

But in addition to hurting our own lives in serious and profound ways, poor eating in today’s connected world now dramatically affects the broad community and even future generations.  This is especially clear as we think about the dramatic future costs that the community is (and will be) forced to bear by the obese:

  • $190 billion in annual medical costs due to obesity, double earlier estimates.
  • $1,850 more per year in medical costs for an overweight person than for someone of healthy weight, among employees at the Mayo Clinic and their adult dependents.
  • $3,086 more per year in medical costs for a Mayo worker with a body mass index (BMI) of 35 to 40.
  • $5,530 more per year in medical costs for a Mayo worker with a BMI above 40. By comparison, smokers’ medical costs were only $1,274 a year higher than nonsmokers’, who generally die earlier.
  • $5 billion annually for additional jet fuel needed to fly heavier Americans, compared to fuel needed at 1960 weights.
  • $4 billion annually for additional gasoline as cars carry heavier passengers.
  • $1,026: annual cost of absenteeism per very obese male worker (BMI > 40). $1,262: Annual cost of absenteeism per very obese female worker.
  • $277: annual cost of absenteeism per mildly obese (BMI 25 to 29.9) male worker.
  • $407: annual cost of absenteeism per mildly obese female worker.
  • $1,056: cost of a “bariatric chair,” able to hold 500 pounds.
  • $1,049: cost of a bariatric toilet rated at 700 pounds

As we live longer, and as these health problems become more chronic and long-lasting, our community will be forced to ration our health care resources in even more dramatic ways than we already are.

I have argued in my book Too Expensive to Treat? that, though it remains difficult to determine where the threshold might be in practice, we can say in principle that it is unjust to use more than a proportionate share of the community’s health care resources. Especially given the disproportionate share of resources that are (and will be) used by the obese, why aren’t we thinking and talking more about the social injustice of gluttony?