In Part 1, we looked at what some of the world’s cultural traditions have said about gluttony, and what relevance that has for us as eaters today. In this second part, we’ll look more at how gluttony — though it might seem like an antiquated idea — is still meaningful for folks trying to get lean and healthy.
The spiritual concern with gluttony
Just to recap, early thinkers weren’t concerned with maintaining six-pack abs and taut heinies. They were concerned with people’s relationship to daily pleasures. Thus gluttony (behavior), not girth (body size), is the concern. You won’t find spiritual texts condemning excess body fat.
It’s been said that gluttony is overcome only when someone has a “full soul” and derives pleasure from passions that come from simple pursuits in life. Someone engulfed in the pleasures of gluttony might turn away from spiritual pursuits and weaken their moral defenses (think: alcohol).
Major sins like gluttony can lead to successor sins. The medieval Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas claimed that overeating can initiate:
- Excessive joy
- Unseemly joy
- Dullness of mind
Come to think of it, when I double up on dessert, my thoughts do become a bit irrational.
Gluttony and society
Today, gluttony is more about living in a society that over-consumes, and wastes resources.
As times changed and our culture evolved, gluttony went from a sin to a badge of honor. Over-consuming meant we were better off (at least monetarily). We became a society that rejoiced in over-consumption, yet denounced those who put on weight.
Our judgments of food/drink are often shaped by our desires, and our desires are often shaped by social and cultural forces. Food consumption can mirror the moral equivalent of substance abuse, but food is legal and often socially accepted.
We’re eating things without nutrients, chewing things not meant to be swallowed, drinking things that provide physical stimulation so we can grind through our stressful day. We’re consuming foods that don’t digest properly and popping pills that block our intestines from doing their job – just so we can consume more without responsibility.
We want the unrestricted pleasure of eating, but caloric consequences are in place for a reason. Without them, we have unlimited potential for consumption, limited only by our cravings.
Not only do we avoid taking responsibility for our actions, we also throw the body’s natural appetite, hunger, and satiety signals out of whack. We don’t allow our physiologies to work the way Nature intended.
In our often-futile attempt to reconcile physical pleasure/satisfaction with moral guilt at over-consumption, we’ve developed many Band-Aid solutions.
It’s one thing to use gum so your mouth is fresh, but the constant need for mouth stimulation and sweet taste is a physical dependency. Oh — and gum has no nutritional value.
These contain zero nutrients (and plenty of industrial chemicals), are costly to the environment and our bank account, and don’t improve our health. Still, it’s the drink choice for millions because it’s the chance to consume without caloric consequence.
Enova and Olestra; Alli
Enova and Olestra are fat substitutes that we don’t fully digest. Alli is a drug that prevents us from properly absorbing dietary fat, so (in theory) we can indulge in that Whopper without consequence. Just don’t wear white pants.
Gluttony and fasting
“Fasting reveals the things that control us.”
— Richard Foster
While at PN, we don’t advocate strict restriction, we do advocate honest, potentially difficult self-reflection.
If you suspect that food/drink is ruling your life in some realm, giving something up for a designated amount of time — whether that’s desserts, alcohol, caffeine, meat, fast food, etc. — can be an excellent exercise in self-examination. Wondering what your triggers, deeper issues, and demons are? Then try giving up your coping mechanism briefly.
Self-examination through fasting teaches us to be content and satisfied with simple foods. Fasting can help us take control of gluttonous thoughts and redirect the appetite to something constructive. If we’re always full of food/drink we might grow overconfident in our abilities, forgetting about spiritual growth. Fasting has been said to increase hunger for spirituality.
Fasting for spiritual purposes is about becoming spiritually “full”, building discipline, and learning (and respecting) the body’s true hunger signals. Conversely, dieting tends to put the focus on appearance, which can be self-centered, or on adhering to an externally imposed regime that has nothing to do with psychological wellness.
Brief periods of fasting also teach us that hunger is not an emergency that requires immediate action at all times. Ideally, we learn to distinguish true, natural, physical hunger signals from “Ooh, there are brownies in the lunchroom!” or “Man, I could totally go for a party-sized pizza.”
At PN, we aim to honour our true hunger, while gaining mastery over our passing whims and desires for self-indulgence.
Regulation vs restriction
Those who regulate food tend to enjoy it more. Someone who just did a Lenten or Ramadan fast will probably enjoy a strawberry more than the person who eats fast food every day.
On the other hand, people who restrict food stringently often end up in over-indulgence. Strict dieting usually leads to binge eating eventually.
Thus, some spiritual leaders claim that a daily moderate amount of food is better than severe fasts. Just like overindulging on food, excessive fasting can also become selfish and weaken spiritual endeavours.
The purpose of regulating our food intakes, then, are:
- To learn about and respect our natural physiological hunger and fullness cues
- To respect our food intake, and enjoy it mindfully and appreciatively
- To eat responsibly, aware of the consequences of our eating decisions
- To get beyond excessive focus on food and eating into the wide world of other intellectual, social, and spiritual pursuits
We all feel cravings and desires. It’s what makes us human.
Those who are successful at overcoming gluttony — the excessive, disproportionate indulgence of desire — make their natural appetite serve them in relationships with others and bettering the world. Appetites are linked, and those who might be full of food can still be spiritually empty.
While none of us want to pollute our body, we also don’t want to make it overly sacred. It’s important to address our needs and enjoy life’s pleasures. If you can’t figure out when enjoyment exceeds necessity, check in with the classifications of gluttony described in part 1.
Sometimes we rely on the gratification of food to compensate for a deficiency of rest, relaxation and happiness in a hassled life. These are learned coping strategies.
If you struggle with cravings and food behaviors, you might need to stay away from certain foods/drinks. Food manufacturers have deliberately created products that are harder for us to resist. And you might need to:
- learn new coping strategies, such as meditation;
- restructure your meal habits and times; and/or
- address the real problem.
Indulging food cravings only results in temporary satisfaction. No matter how amazing the dessert, we’ll be hungry again… and the dessert cannot fill up emotional, intellectual, or spiritual emptiness.
— Geneen Roth
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