Saturday, January 8, 2011

Obesity

The triumph of pleasure over reason. (Via Joshua Snyder) To quote:
Why do we eat too much, when it is clearly not in our best interests to do so? The simple answer is that we fail to recognise the point at which eating changes from a healthy, good action into an unhealthy, bad action. We miss this point because we have confused our motives for eating in the first place.

Most diets aimed at weight loss will encourage us to restrict either the amount of food we eat, or the type of food we consume. But these strategies play to the underlying flaw in our attitude to food. We are consumed by the desire for pleasure in eating.  Some diets will allow us to continue enjoying whatever foods we like, so long as we sacrifice quantity. Other diets will let us indulge our craving to eat as much as we like, so long as we restrict ourselves to certain low-calorie foods. Either way, a sacrifice is made so that some part of our appetite can still be fulfilled.  

These are dangerous approaches, because they inflame the very desires that encourage us to over-eat in the first place. It is the desire for the sensual pleasure of eating, which perverts our relationship with food and leaves us in mental and physical disorder.

Food serves two primary goods in human life. First, food gives us the strength and nourishment we need to grow and to move. Second, food serves a social or convivial function, as we offer hospitality to guests, or come together for shared meals. As with many other good things in life, it is tempting to add a third function of "providing pleasure". But this temptation to think of pleasure as a separate and distinct good or function is misguided and dangerous. Pleasure should instead be understood as our natural response to good things. Hence we find pleasure in the nourishment of food, and in the convivial sharing of food. But to seek pleasure for its own sake is to seek a subjective response quite apart from real goods. This pursuit of pleasure is the cause of numerous physical and psychological problems, as evidenced by the obesity epidemic.
Many people over-eat in the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. Their actions betray a disordered motive as their consumption of food meets and then exceeds the good of nourishment, becoming instead a harm to their health and life. Many diets will fail to help such a person, because they do not recognise anything inherently wrong in eating primarily for pleasure. So instead of combating the wrong motive directly, many people find themselves locked in a psychological battle between the desire for pleasure and the desire for health. Typical dieting behaviours can succeed in this scenario, but behavioural change is made more difficult by the failure to understand that any amount of food consumed with primary consideration for the pleasure it brings, is food consumed in error and from a false and harmful motive.

This error is the essence of what we used to call "gluttony" -- the inordinate or disordered desire for food. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that: “The vice of gluttony does not reside in the substance of the food, but in the appetite ill-regulated by reason.”

If our appetite is regulated by reason, we will not seek to eat more than is necessary to nourish ourselves. Nor, as Aquinas points out, will we develop other manifestations of gluttony such as eating dishes that are too expensive, eating food too "daintily" or elaborately prepared, eating too soon, and eating too eagerly. These behaviours indicate an appetite that is detached from the rational purpose and order of eating.

It may seem overly strict or mean-spirited to speak of a "rational purpose" for eating.  But the truth is that our present society faces a crisis built on excess consumption in defiance of rational limits. It would be inadequate and somewhat perverse to merely extol specific caloric limits, or to contemplate "junk food" taxes or publicly funded lap-band surgery, when the root of the problem is our willingness to indulge an unhealthy appetite. 
In this writer's experience, the decision to eat only for nourishment was immediately challenged by a powerful craving for the pleasure of food.  My appetite felt cheated, as though I was being robbed of something -- not merely in terms of quantity (refusing a second serve) but in terms of satiety also. Eating according to my need for nourishment took away my freedom to revel in the sensory pleasure of food. This loss was keenly felt, both at the time of eating and on subsequent occasions when boredom would otherwise have suggested to me some form of snack. The sense of loss implies that the pleasure of eating has played a greater psychological role than I had expected.
  
In the wake of this loss, I have seemed more sensitive to the difference between actual hunger and mere craving. This sensitivity can grow as soon as we begin to distinguish between actual needs in terms of nourishment, and mere craving based on the desire for pleasure.  Another benefit of this “ethicist's diet” is the growing sense of "detachment" from the pleasure of food.  We can still enjoy the taste of food, but the over-riding goal of nourishment prevents this enjoyment from becoming a fixation or future craving. This is, perhaps, closely linked to a third benefit of the ethicist's diet: a slowly strengthening discipline or temperance in the face of sensual pleasure.

Aside from these personal changes in attitude and experience, the focus on nourishment leaves us with greater freedom to use food for the benefit of others. If nourishment is so easily achieved, then what is the point in great feasts, elaborate dinner parties, beautiful dishes, and food in great quantities?  The point is that we can use food in these forms as a way of giving to others. We can take pains to design and prepare wonderful meals without any thought of our own sensual pleasure, but merely to express our love and generosity to friends and family.

The focus on nourishment has also left me wondering what to do with my time, energy, and attention. This sense of detachment from the pleasure of food seems like it should be filled by something of greater importance. I have spent a long time revelling in my senses, feeding an appetite that ultimately leads nowhere and contributes nothing to my objective happiness and well-being. My goal in eating is now to nourish my life...so what is the goal of my life? If we now eat in order to live, we must surely begin to ask ourselves what we live for, if not the pursuit of satiety. 

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.
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10 comments:

tubbs said...

Well, this Savonarola'esque homily just makes me want to go out to the kithchen and put that last slice of gallette down the disposal...NOT.
And those poor Froggies, countless generations of them suffering in the flames now, for all their illicit, overwrought, "dainty" cuisine.
I really don't think that the "elder daughter" of the Church produced so many saints - from a diet of boiled oats and other Presbyterian fare. (Hmmm, wish I could remember that wonderful Belloc quote/poem, about his preference for a country with a Catholic palate).

Aron said...

Hi Elena! :)
Well, I agree with the above post. Far too many people who struggle with weight do so because of the reasons outlined here. However, I would humbly submit there are SOME few who struggle with the issue because of genetics or injuries, or even economics (because of how healthy food is so much more expensive than unhealthy food), ect. To illustrate very briefly what I mean...I am one of these few. In actual fact, I eat very little, (usually once a day) and on the order of chicken, fish, salad ect, and the occasional sweets, but still have weight issues. I used to have a hard time putting it on when I was younger--and wanted to be as "cut" as the other guys. Now that I am in my 30's genetics have kicked in and taking weight off is an issue. I excersize daily and enjoy it, always have, although I have had to lay off of the weights for awhile due to an injury. In fact, about the only times that I really want food is just after a migraine has lifted, or when out with friends. Other than that, I can take it or leave it. Instead of gluttony, I am probably guilty of the sin of vanity, sigh. But I digress...It kind of amazes me when I see people who obviously have such issues( leaving aside the ones already outlined) chowing down on bags of chips, cake, ect, don't get any physical activity, and then complain about their weight. It then becomes a health and spiritual issue.

elena maria vidal said...

I gain weight just by looking at food.

Aron said...

Awwww! But I saw you awhile back in a video interview about Marie Antoinette on youtube, and I thought you looked beautiful!
Food engages in gorilla warfare with me...
~Aron <><

elena maria vidal said...

Well, thank you so much, Aron!

Georgette said...

This is a terrific article! Thanks for finding this and posting it here.

Presenting food in a delicious and beautiful way can often be a way of showing hospitality, generosity and love, as Alstin points out at the end of the article. But with this, as with all things, balance and moderation--and keeping God and service to Him as the focus is the key, I think.

I too gain weight by just smelling food! And being post-50 years old makes it even more so. It makes fasting more necessary for me--as it seems the only way to really make the pounds come off! I figure we have so much suffering we need to do in our lives, if not in the beginning, then towards the end; aging is one way to see that we do!

Aron said...

My pleasure, Elena! (BTW, the photo on your blog; I am under the impression that it is your grandmother?)
Georgette; I agree. I will be 35 in February, and I have basically the same issue. We could have it much worse, and weather it is weight issues, or my arthritis or whatever (insert issue here), I try to make a gift of it to God. Not that I don't feel it--or even whine sometimes, heh,--but one tries to put in in perspective by contemplating His sufferings on our behalf. Poking fun at myself also helps...I have an endless store of them, heh...

elena maria vidal said...

Georgette, I am down to one meal a day just to MAINTAIN my current weight.

Aron honey, the photo on this blog is one of my wedding pictures, taken about 14 years ago.

Aron said...

Eeeep. My apologies!! Well, all that I can say is that you were as beautiful then as you are now. As ever, I enjoy TAT.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, dear Aron!