So, a guy goes to the doctor and says, “Doc! I’ve eliminated 99% of the fat from my diet, I’ve stopped drinking, no desserts or candy, and I only eat meat once a week! Will I live longer?” And the Doctor says, “No, it will only seem that way.”
Some years ago I read a book by a doctor who was summarizing the latest findings of medical science. But in the memorable opening line of the book he issued a “pastoral” caution, writing: Americans enjoy the best health and the longest lifespans in our history. Yet…we worry more about our health than ever before . He went on to urge the reader to keep things in perspective, and to remember that health is about a lot of things in combination, not just one or two things. To reduce it simply to what a person weighs or what they eat, or how much exercise they get, is to fail to realize that there are many people who are overweight, but healthy, thin but quite ill, who eat all the wrong things but are quite healthy, who get little exercise but stay fit. Again, health is about a lot of variables interacting in a myriad of ways, to include genetics and even intangibles like one’s sense of well-being.
Anxious about food! I like you have come through the Christmas holidays, of which food is a very big part. Not just the food itself, but many of the parties and rituals surrounding it. And, as I, like you, sat at a few tables I noticed how anxious many are about what is being eaten, and what effects it might have.
Pass the Salt! To illustrate, a few nights ago, sitting at one restaurant table of a good number of friends I noticed how much of the conversation was nervously opining on what was good for you, or what was loaded with fat, or how this might have too many calories, or too much of this or that. Mischievously I asked in a rather audible voice if someone would please pass the salt. This led to a variety of largely negative reactions from laughter, to actual shock. “You know Father, you really need to stay away from that salt!” Reassuring them that my blood pressure was normal, I wondered aloud why we have all become so very anxious about food, that we don’t really seem to enjoy it. Everything is guilt ridden, and we so often moralize and even scold one another.
I wonder what it’s all about? I wonder if, a hundred years ago, people sat about anxiously opining about and discussing food’s effects, or if they just gratefully dug in with a little gusto?
It is a true fact that most Americans are overweight. Hence moderation is a good goal for most of us. But all the guilt and fear mongering is, on the one hand not very helpful, and the other hand, seems to lack appreciation for God’s gifts. There are a few Biblical lines that come to mind here about food that I would like to recall in order to make this point.
1. Let no one pass judgment on you in matters of food and drink ….why do you submit to regulations as if you were still living in the world? “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” These are all things destined to perish with use; they accord with human precepts and teachings. While they have a semblance of wisdom in rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, they are of no value against gratification of the flesh. Col 2:16, 21-23).
Most generally, when Paul is talking about food in his letters, he has in mind the rather complicated situation of that time, when certain foods (especially meat), sold in the public markets had been dedicated or offered to the pagan gods. Christians seem to have been divided over whether they could eat such food. St. Paul was of the school of thought which permitted Christians to eat such food, since the gods to whom such foods had been dedicated were naught, and the Christian himself had not made the offering. But there were other Christians who were very alarmed and scandalized by any Christian eating such food. While insisting on Christian freedom to eat it, St. Paul also cautioned charity and advised that if eating such food (dedicated to the gods) in the presence of a fellow Christian would cause grief or scandal, one should, in charity, refrain. He says elsewhere Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall (1 Cor 8:13).
Now while the context of this passage is specific, its principle is general: charity and freedom in matters of food. Thus, we ought to avoid some of the more extensive moralizing and scolding that goes on at many tables today. There may be times when, due to a special relationship with a person, we may wish to remind or encourage them in good practices. For example, they may wish us to exhort them and help them lose weight, or avoid foods that are problematic for them (e.g. sugar in the case of a diabetic, salty food is the case of hypertension). But the general norm to be observed, according to this passage, is charity, respect for freedom, and the gratitude and joy that are proper to receiving God’s gift of food.
Another thing the passage eschews is an attitude of moral superiority in matters of food. For some, who have read up on nutrition, or have recently lost weight, or who have success in staying thin, are forever preaching and moralizing and proffering unwanted advice. St Paul speaks of what they say as having the semblance of wisdom, in rigor of devotion and self-abasement, and severity to the body but he goes on to warn of the pride that underlies many such methodologies, and plagues the dogmatic preachers of them, for: they are of no value against gratification of the flesh. In other words, the real enemy proceeding from the flesh (the flesh is our sin-nature, not the body per se), is pride. Better to be overweight and humble, than thin but full of pride.
Further, even if we interpret “flesh” here to mean merely the body, rigorous practices, inflicting severity upon the body, often set up opposite reactions. We see this in a lot of the yo-yo dieting common in our culture. Shaming or fear mongering the overweight into dramatic and severe programs is seldom helpful in the long run.
2. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. (Rom 14:2-4)
Here is similar advice as to what is above in the first quote, but there is also a much clearer condemnation of pride insofar as food is concerned. Notice too, that things are a bit reversed here from our experience. For, it is those of the expansive diet that tend toward pride. But the “no meat” group also fall prey by “condemning” those who do eat meat. (Remember the context wherein most meat from the local markets had been declared sacred by the pagans to the gods).
But again note that Paul emphasizes freedom and charity. In other words, Paul says, “lay off on all the food moralizing and respect your brother’s freedom, don’t let food become a matter for either ridicule or lots of excessive rules.” Hence, toward those who follow careful diets, (e.g.vegetarian diets), there ought to be no scoffing of them for this. But neither is all the moralizing and demonizing of entire food groups (and those who eat of them) proper either.
3. They [certain heretics]….order [others] to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Tim 4:3-5)
Here again, Paul’s main concern in religious, and thus he warns of certain gnostic tendencies and perhaps teachings of Judaizers too, who forbid entire food groups as intrinsically evil. St. Paul is clear, all foods are clean (cf also Jesus at Mk 7:19) and should be received with thanksgiving from God who made them.
Again, the demonizing of certain food groups in our culture, either by vegetarian or the “healthy eating police” is to be questioned by a passage such as this. That some need to moderate regarding certain food or even wholly refrain from them due to medical conditions is granted. But the problem isn’t the food per se, it is the medical condition. St Paul says elsewhere: As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself (Rom 14:14).
Some question the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat in Lent based on this text. But note an important difference, we do not abstain from meat because meat is bad or evil, but because it is good. Thus it is a worthy sacrifice to set it aside for a time. We do not reject meat, we enjoy it. That is why it is a sacrifice to abstain from it.
So food ought to be enjoyed. And, to be critiqued are the modern tendencies to fret excessively about foods, categorically demonize them, scold others who enjoy them, moralize and give frequent and unwanted advice to others for their food choices, and especially doing this at the very time of communal eating. Frankly, some of these tendencies, especially when done in at the table, are rude and insensitive. If someone asks for salt, cheerfully oblige him. You are neither his doctor, nor in possession of his medical records. So smile, and as you pass the shaker say, “Ah, salt! The spice of life!”
- Some will say, “But Father, but Father! You must speak more about gluttony, it is a sin!” Yes, but another time. If you insist, then here: “All things in moderation!…including moderation (for there is a time to feast).“
- Someone else may say, “Really Father, you must say more about obesity, and how deadly our American eating habits are in terms of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. You must give equal time to such important considerations!” Ah, yes again, but please understand, this post IS equal time. I rather doubt that anyone who has read this post hasn’t had an earful of warnings from many segments of our culture about all the medical complications of obesity.
Hence, this post IS the balance, wherein I say merely, Relax a little and enjoy life too. Food is good, excesses cause problems to be sure. But don’t work so hard to stay alive that you forget to live.