Our Gluttonous Age: When We Live to Eat, We Die

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Instant gratification, without paying attention to the consequences, has become a way of life for many, and it costs us dearly in a variety of ways. It is about more than what we eat, but also about character development, including social awareness, taking responsibility and self-control.

Recently, the mayor of New York City proposed a ban on “super-sized” high-calorie beverages, as a way to help curb the epidemic of obesity presently plaguing the country. His action sparked outrage on the political right about the ever-increasing intrusion of government into the personal life and choices of individuals, and the dangerous precedent an action like he proposes might set. Those on the political left counter that personal choice and accountability do not seem to be working very well when it comes to the nation’s eating habits, and those habits have led to an explosion of diabetes and other obesity-related illness, driving up the cost of everyone’s medical care and insurance. But hidden somewhere in the debate is the unspoken issue of our gratification-oriented culture, and the high toll that all of our various ‘gluttonous’ ways are imposing on our physical, economic, and psychological well-being.

It’s not hard to make the argument that we’re living in a gluttonous age. We’ve been eating bigger, cheaper, and faster for quite some time now. And we’re bombarded everywhere with unhealthy messages about food and drink. Some of the most popular programs on cable and satellite television deal with culinary themes. And certain channels even have programs that feature the “100 tastiest places to chow-down,” or glorify binge-eating in contests that pit “man vs. food.” Whatever the source, the message is always the same: gratify, gratify, gratify! Pay no attention to the nutritional value, quality, or the consequences. Just consider the taste and the size, open wide, and enjoy. The problem is, despite our momentary gratification and the perceived low dollar cost, in the end we are all paying quite dearly for our dietary indiscretions.

In some religious traditions and philosophies, doing something for the pure pleasure of doing it, as opposed to doing it to help ensure human survival and health, is considered wrong or “sinful.” Some Christian religions rank gluttony among the most “deadly” of sins. All these traditions advance the same notion: when it comes to food, we’re supposed to eat to live, not live to eat. But we live in an age of unusual abundance, and in which momentary titillation and sensory excitement have all but completely replaced longer-term fulfillment and gratification. In fact, much of daily life is often so empty, sterile, mundane, hurried, and devoid of moments of true joy, that we often seize voraciously on the small opportunities we might have to gratify ourselves. And there are literally thousands of drive-up and drive-through instant gratification service providers that are more than willing to accommodate our craving.

Recently, First Lady Michelle Obama, who is well-known for her advocacy of children’s food health, praised the Walt Disney Company for its decision to curtail certain kinds of junk food advertising on its television and radio programs that are geared primarily toward younger persons. The company’s entertainment theme parks will still have plenty of places where a person can order a jumbo cheeseburger and French fries, but theoretically, parents are in a better position in such a situation to govern when and how much of such types of food should be incorporated into the family’s vacation diet. And while critics assail Disney’s decision as just another example of symbolism over substance, others applaud the move as an important beginning in the effort to save our children from the perils of obesity.

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There is an old adage that we are what we eat. There is not only some literal truth to this with respect to the physical consequences of the types of food we consume, but also a profound metaphorical truth about the kind of people we can become when we consume a steady diet of the salacious and hedonistic offerings promoted to us daily about almost every aspect of human living, and from a wide variety of sources. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we seem to have lost so much of our capacity for moderation and self-control. And perhaps it’s also one of the reasons, as I mention in my book, Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), why impaired social awareness and responsibility-taking has become the defining phenomenon of our time.

I happen to love cooking as a creative exercise. And I used to watch several of the food shows on cable, to get ideas for new creations. But I also found myself falling into the trap of both preparing and consuming food purely for the pleasure of it. Eventually, this cost me dearly health-wise. But today, I’m 50 lbs lighter than I’ve been in years, and maintaining a more appropriate weight for the first time in my life. And despite a number of ailments that simply can’t be easily dismissed, I’m much healthier now than I was, and enjoying life a lot more. It seems I needed to take my own advice and break the cycle of mindless and momentary self-gratification. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy cooking and sharing a good meal with family and friends. But my considerations are much wider now, and I’ve moved beyond living purely on the pleasure principle, to doing my best to nurture and enhance my life and the lives of those around me. And I must confess, as difficult as the course-correction was at first, the payoffs have been enormous. Just a few years ago, and like many others, as a result of my own gluttonous habits, I was dying a lot more quickly than is really necessary. Today, I’m much more alive. And I’m trying to spread the good word.

Burger and fries anyone??

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