"Stop eating that!" On the food moralizers and some Biblical advice about food

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 [1].  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!”


  1. 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).
  2. 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.


38 Replies to “"Stop eating that!" On the food moralizers and some Biblical advice about food”

    1. I hope you don’t mind a little grammar correction: “You may suggest I loosen my belt, but I’d rather lose the weight.”

  1. Dear Fr. Pope,
    My Great Aunt Helen, Great Aunt Bessie, Great Aunt Letha, Great Aunt Bertha, Grandma Beulah, Great Aunt Miriam, Grandma Lois, Great Aunt Bettie, Great Aunt Louise, Great Aunt May, Great Aunt Ethelene, Cousin Peggy and Great Grandma Winnie thank you. These women knew how to cook good food – poor man’s food – and glorified God in these good works.

    1. But I must admit, that good food was necessary to feed those who were doing difficult outdoors labor on farm, in the forest and in the field. I don’t think we should be eating large meals if we labor primarily in front of a computer monitor…

      1. Tisk tisk, you’re edging toward the moralizing 🙂 Not allowed on this particular post. In the end, weight has something to do with what you’re speaking of, but there are so many other factors. Genetics is huge, I know too many people who follow none of your rules and stay thin. I know others who eat less but grow fat. I have noticed most of them look just like their parents. Other things are involved too. We have a lot more intense stress today and the pace of life is rushed. This too is a factor. Some argue that processed foods are the problem, still others that there are hormones in the the foods we eat, still others say we don’t drink enough water, and of course age is a huge factor which affects both metabolism and the percentage of muscle vs fat. etc, etc, etc etc….

        1. By the way, I also notice that a very large percentage of construction workers, who are certainly not sitting behind computers, have big beer bellies. My point is that there are other things going on….

  2. Here’s a passage from SIRACH 30:14-17. Better off poor, healthy’ and fit than rih and afflicted in body. Health and fitness are better than any gold, and a robust body than countless riches. There is no wealth better than health of body, and no gladness above joy of heart. Death is better than a life of misery, and eternal sleep than chronic sickness. OK THERE YOU HAVE IT. Enough of that. You look good Msgr Pope. Enjoy yourself. You know who to hangout with. The fat and the beautiful. LOL

  3. Thanks for this post. We are a family who enjoys cooking and eating and feeding our friends. We are also overweight and it’s more obvious on me since I am short. But when people caution me, I remind them that thin people die as well (this line is stolen from a priest friend of ours who also has a love of good food and merriment).

  4. Msgr.

    Watching that video made me hungry. Think I’m going to grab some St. Paul and have a snack.
    God Bless and don’t forget to say Grace…..

  5. About 20 years ago, I was quite heavy. I didn’t like it, I felt very bad. So I did two things – I began to move around more, and I cut down on the portions I ate. I didn’t cut out any food, I ate carbohydrates, sugars, fats, meat and vegetables but I cut down on the size of the portions. I am at a good weight and have maintained it. I am healthy and take no medications at all at the the age of 60.

    Moderation. That’s the key.

  6. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/03/the-moral-crusade-against-foodies/8370/

    Thank you for your wise words Msgr. When I saw your comment with an article from The Atlantic…the above came to mind as well. Interesting take on our “foodie” culture.

    “Unfortunately, the foodie fringe enjoys enough media access to make daily claims for its sophistication and virtue, for the suitability of its lifestyle as a model for the world. We should not let it get away with those claims. Whether gluttony is a deadly sin is of course for the religious to decide, and I hope they go easy on the foodies; they’re not all bad. They are certainly single-minded, however, and single-mindedness—even in less obviously selfish forms—is always a littleness of soul.”

  7. Jesus attended at least one wedding. I’ll presume food was a central element of the celebration (wine was, for sure!). I suspect Jesus enjoyed his food – and was not admonishing others for enjoying their food either. We can enjoy our food and remain cognisant of serious issues with obesity and hunger. So, thank you, Msgr, for reminding us all of this.

  8. On the other hand …

    There are times when some food is a danger. This hits home here, because Mrs. HV is allergic to shrimp, and all related invertebrates (clams, lobster, oysters, &c.). If she so much as touches them, she will go in to into anaphalactic shock, and could die. She carries an EpiPen with her at all times for just such situations. I will probably never eat at a Red Lobster again. I have had to run interference at social occasions, making sure she gets nowhere near the shrimp cocktail platter.

    Same drill for other persons with nut allergies, etc.

    I try to not be fussy about food, but it’s a different situation with this in your life.

  9. 100 Years ago food was real. Things we consider food today would not even qualify as food 100 years ago. Just because it’s in the grocery store and labeled food does not mean its not poison. A food manufacturer is not the same thing as a farmer.

    1. Yes, this is quite generally said today, I’ve had an earfull of it. But I do enjoy my food and try not to think about this sort of stuff. You’re also edging toward the negative: mangia mangia!

      1. You should think about it, a Shepherd, to so many that depend on you leading the way. mangia mangia! just make sure its home cooked :).

  10. Aboslutely fantastic article and a HUGE thank you for it!!! I’m a thin person whose one of those “eat whatever and never gain weight” types, but love eating dearly and have grown ever so tired of hearing about health problems and diseases every time I eat with a “health conscience but only via food” type.
    I’m also a smoker. I try to joke around about how “we’re the fattest country in the world, people are dying of starvation left and right, and we could help so many….which, obviously is perfectly why it’s so blantantly appropriate for us to make anti-smoking laws”…. Some people laugh at my attempt at pointing to the obserdity of believing of that reasoning but the health conscience never seem to laugh. I think it’s because they don’t take a step back and read things like this article, but I love it and I’m going to ask my friends to read! (delightfully informative too)
    Thank you Msgr.!

  11. Bravo, Father Charles,
    thank God for reasonable people!
    Of course you are not condoning gluttony or obesity nor
    are you siding with the PCpolice who want us all drinking wheatgrass and eating tofu!
    (see what I listen to living in the bay area with marin county and berekely as side dishes;
    pray for me and my family we live in the midst of wolves and nimrods :-/
    A blessed and happy New Year to you!

  12. Dr. Dean Edell’s book that you referenced was a refreshing dose of sanity. I bought it when it came out and reread it a few years ago. Thanks for reminding me.

  13. Thank you for this, Father. I get somewhat frustrated when well-meaning Catholics act as if Jesus had a six pack and we all should as well. They are just aghast that a person can both fast weekly and be overweight (basically I’ve been called a liar). This reminder to be charitable is what I needed today.

    God gave us so many wonderful things. I just spend my whole life in awe.

  14. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: We’re experiencing all of these health problems because we AREN’T EATING. That is, we’re not eating the God-created food that will keep us healthy. The body is not stupid. It feels the lack of nutrients, and spurs us to keep eating until we meet our needs. No wonder we’re overweight and sluggish. The ultra-vegan prosyletizers are the worst. After Noah, God permitted us to eat meat. Meat has beneficial effects. However, only eating meat, eating over-processed meat, and highly fatty meat does not have beneficial effects. I’m glad, Msgr., you’ve emphasized balance. But, in order to ’tilt’ America’s dia/besity problem in a positive direction, we need to make the majority of our food healthy. Apply the 51-percent rule. Eat fresh, nutritious, and chemical-free foods 51-percent of the time. That’s about a little more than half your plate. That way the majority of what you eat WILL be good for you! The results will be obvious, and eating right costs a whole lot less than expensive medication or surgery. Food is God’s gift. Eat it in the wrapping God provided.

    1. You say, “we need to make the majority of our food healthy.” and “eating right costs a whole lot less than expensive medication or surgery.”

      Well, the later is only true if you don’t have insurance and garden a lot. I’m fortunate enough to have property so I can garden a good bit with my children. Even that only cuts down on the expensiveness of feeding 4 adolescents well.

      The former requires some leverage against Monsanto putting all the real farmers out of business.

      Either way, Msgr. is encouraging charity toward one another here. That’s the best idea regarding all of these issues.

  15. Great column–I was looking forward to reading it ever since I saw the title this morning before I left for work. And now back to surfing the internet…and sipping my wine. 😉

  16. Thank you Msgr for bringing this up. At a family gathering years ago, a dear old aunt was at our table, as well as her caring sons and their wives. It was a wonderful cultural buffet and the food was sublime, but the sons repeatedly warned their mother about the dangers lurking in consuming many of the delicacies. As a result, she was unable to enjoy the fine meal as much as she would have wanted to. Sadly, she died several months later — not from medical complications as a result of excesses of certain foods — but, as a result of a car accident.

    Dear GKC said it best:
    Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
    There’s always laughter and good red wine,
    At least I’ve always heard it so.
    Benedicamus Domino.

    Mangia! Mangia!

  17. Msgr. you say something else is going on.

    I think it is high fructose corn syrup in EVERYTHING! Mayonaisse, catsup, soda crackers and on and on.

    It is not metabolized and used as energy from what I have read, but just desposited as fat. In addition, because it is not metablolized by insulin, it floats in the blood for a long time

    Someone will scream about this, but as a diabetic I can vouch for that in my own long time experience.

    And you are so right about food and the food police. Everything in moderation.

  18. “Do not worry about what you are to eat and drink, or what you are to wear.”

  19. I am no strict vegetarian, but I have got some insight in the horrors of slaughterhouses and the cruel treatment of animals in factory farming, battery cages, etc. Do you really think it is o.k. not to afford even one single thought about the suffering and plight of farm animals when enjoying their meat ? In my opinion, Christians and Catholics should be good stewarts to all of Creation and very well and consciously be aware from where their food comes…
    Thank you for encouraging charity! God wants love toward all creatures!
    irma (Austria, Europe)

  20. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself (Rom 14:14). -I like this passage. Thanks for sharing.

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