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To Fight Obesity, Let’s Call Gluttony What it Is: A Disease of the Soul

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Zac Alstin - published on 06/02/15 - updated on 06/08/17

Something's very wrong with our relationship with food

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.

Craving satisfaction

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 recognize 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 realizations 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:

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