Some years ago I began listening to audio books on my iPod while plying the treadmill at the Y. This was partly so I wouldn't become a captive audience for whatever daytime fare happened to be on TV in the fitness center while I worked out. More often than not these days, the TV is tuned to the Food Channel, which seems like an oddly self-defeating choice for people who are sweating to burn off calories. The cooking shows usually feature well-upholstered chefs who whip up some delectable concoction that rarely stints on butter, cream and heavy sauces. Just feasting your eyes on this stuff is enough to undo an afternoon's workout, so why put yourself through this double torture?
For much of human history (and prehistory), the chief nutritional challenge we faced as a species was not the prospect of getting fat but of starving to death. There was survival value in being able to store fats and sugars in the body against the inevitable lean periods. Unfortunately, now that many people routinely go a lifetime without missing a meal, there is as yet no evolutionary switch to turn off our craving for fattening foods. Diets of one sort or another have been around since at least the Roman Empire, but their effect on most people is much like trying to drive a car with one foot on the brake and the other on the accelerator. Our focus tends to be on undoing the consequences of overeating rather than on eating properly in the first place.
Gluttony has long been recognized as a spiritual malady. St. Paul condemned those "whose god is the belly." A sixth-century pope known as Gregory the Great formally classified gluttony as one of seven mortal sins meriting eternal damnation. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, himself enormously fat, identified five distinct forms of gluttony -- not just eating too much but also eating too soon, eating too expensively, eating too eagerly and even eating too daintily. St. John of the Cross recognized that the problem was not limited to simple overindulgence in food and drink; even spiritual hunger could lead to gluttony if it only consisted of a craving for "sensible sweetness." A 19th-century Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham, inventor of the Graham cracker, saw an ominous connection between gluttony and other forms of depravity. He prescribed a strict vegetarian diet for a variety of physical and moral ills, including indigestion, constipation, alcoholism and sexual indulgence.
Gluttony is a form of spiritual emptiness that we try to fill with too much of the wrong things and sometimes even of the right things, whether food, sex or even God. The essential clue regarding a remedy may be contained in the word "gluttony" itself, which comes from the Latin gluttire, meaning to gulp down. If, as Thoreau suggests, we take time to savor what we consume, we may discover that our enjoyment of it actually increases, even as our compulsion to overindulge recedes. We may think we are fixated on food, but the real problem is that we're not paying enough attention to what we eat while we are eating it.