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?
If we’re honest, the Church listing gluttony as a deadly sin in a document(s) is not sufficient. I had 16 years of Catholic school and decades of homilies and can’t remember any warning that gluttony was deadly except when the concept was used to cover drunkeness. The soft pedaling actually began in Aquinas who in the Summa Theologica may as well have called it undeadly when he states this:
“On the other hand, if the inordinate concupiscence in the vice of gluttony be found to affect only such things as are directed to the end, for instance when a man has too great a desire for the pleasures of the palate, yet would not for their sake do anything contrary to God’s law, it is a venial sin.”
There ya go. Eating rapaciously is not against God’s law….continuing to eat breakfast rapaciously on Sunday and missing Mass thereby is deadly gluttony because you broke a real law of God. Lying as a corporate salesman in order to be able to afford steak every night is gluttony as mortal sin. But if you’re born with a trust fund and therefore can afford steak every night without breaking any law of God, then you’re good to go. Lol….no Aquinas, (and I loved the Summa enough to read the whole thing) eating rapaciously IS breaking the law of God.
Aquinas lists ways of offending and one of them should be told in a Sunday sermon….speed of eating.
Some do not eat great quantity but that is not the only way of worshipping food.
On the surface the idea that some maladies are Too Expensive to Treat is appealing and reasonable – why should the rest of us subsidize someone’s self destructive behavior? In practice however this might not work out the way we imagine it.
It is very easy to foresee this approach being used to limit the size of families as there can hardly be a greater contributor to the cost of the health care system than increasing the number of people who put demands on it. If you should not be expected to bear the load for treating my obesity induced medical problems why should I have to pay for your seven children? I have no problem with increasing the financial burden on those whose actions increase their use of health care but I would be very cautious about how this is done.
Gary Taubes has some interesting things to say about this topic in Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It. He says the obesity epidemic may be more a matter of what we eat rather than how much we eat, and that for a long time the government and other authorities have been recommending precisely the wrong kinds of diets. For example, one of the older food pyramids from the federal government had as its base the “Bread, Cereal, Rice, and Pasta” group, recommending 6 to 11 servings a day. I remember when a well planned dinner had to have a starch (usually rice or potatoes). For anyone seriously dieting nowadays, this is wrong wrong wrong!
For about half of my life, I was painfully thin (5’7″ and 119 lbs), and when I told doctors I wanted to gain weight, they thought I was crazy, since almost everyone else was trying to lose. When I hit middle age, I rose to a normal weight . . . and kept on going. Now for the last several years, I have been just at or slightly above the cusp of being overweight. As a skinny person, I could never understand why people couldn’t lose weight. My advice: Just don’t eat! It was easy for me. Now I am seeing things from the other side, and it amazes me how difficult it is to stick to a diet. I don’t think I used to be virtuous and am now gluttonous. It is just immensely more difficult now to refrain from eating too much than it was thirty years ago.
But I do agree that we have duty to take care of ourselves. It’s just that for some people it is relatively easy, and for some it is very, very difficult, if not impossible. I read a book many years ago titled What You Can Change and What You Can’t which rated various conditions (many of them psychiatric ones) according to the difficulty of changing them. One of the conditions very near the most extreme end of the difficulty scale was weight.
Diet tip: If you absolutely must go to Trader Joe’s, don’t even think about going down the aisles with the cookies and candy. Almost everything is really good, reasonably priced, very fattening, and addicting.
Gary Taubes’ journalism is gently but thoroughly rebuked here: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2011/05/16/thin-body-of-evidence-why-i-have-doubts-about-gary-taubess-why-we-get-fat/
As the reviewer notes, Taubes’ “diet” is not only ethically and environmentally awful, but also flies in the face of traditional (carb-rich) diets from Italy to Japan. The review notes that we are often desperate for “silver-bullet” type easy explanations, but that these are potentially misleading. More persuasive is the vast increase in “empty calories” in the American diet, especially since the 1970’s, when we really start to see obesity rates rise. Marion Nestle argues (persuasively, to me) that food companies in a capitalist econony face the problem of needing to continually sell more food, when it is obvious that humans can reach satiation! Thus, they need to find ways to dump more food into the system (and our systems!). And in general, the highest-profit food is to dress up very simple carbohydrates in alluring taste packages that are consumed with virtually no preparation.
I don’t meant to bring up Nestle as a silver bullet either. I thank Charlie for bringing this up, though, because I think it’s evident to me that restraint (in this area and others) is needed. I find stories like that of my favorite Twins blogger, Aaron Gleeman, to be particularly worthy of praise, and so I share his story here:
Thanks, Charlie, for this encouragement to think about gluttony.
If it hasn’t been emphasized, it should be, especially in light of the health costs Charlie cites, but also because of the (less obvious) environmental costs of overeating. I’m glad David brought in debate over the new study on diet. According to food journalist Mark Bittman (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/26/which-diet-works/?ref=opinion), the study did show that those eating an Atkins diet burn more calories than those on other sorts of diets. However, there are longterm health risks associated with Adkins, most people have trouble sticking to it over time, the environmental costs of eating so much meat and dairy are huge, and if you eat that much meat it’s also harder to buy humanely raised, organic, etc.
Bittman recommends focusing on minimally processed whole foods and eating small amounts of meat and dairy. In my view, this sort of diet fits much better with contemporary Christian thinking about stewardship of the earth, concern for animal welfare, and what Jim Keenan calls the virtue of self-care.