Gluttony is more than a deadly sin

Overeating can come from a desire for self-indulgence, often with moral and economic implications

Gluttony’s origins lie with early Christianity
Image by: Alex Choi
Gluttony’s origins lie with early Christianity

Two men were recently banned from an all-you-can-eat buffet in the U.K. for eating too much.

According to the Telegraph, the manager feared his restaurant was going to go out of business because of the patrons.

It’s a case that’s brought up questions about all-you-can-eat culture — how much is too much? And who makes the decision to stop?

“When you’re talking gluttony, [people] do have control. They have discretionary choice,” University of Windsor professor Kenneth Hart said.

Hart, who specializes in addictions psychology, said there’s a clear difference between a glutton and a food addict.

“There’s a breakdown in [an addict’s] ability to manage themselves and manage their decisions regarding food,” he said. “They don’t want to be overeating but they can’t stop.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, gluttony is a “vice of excessive eating.” To some, it’s a Friday night at Smoke’s Poutinerie.

Smoke’s makes up to 100 to 125 poutines per hour on the weekend, according to head manager Andrew Kingston.

The location on Princess and Division Streets has been open for just over two years.

“It’s been embedded in the Canadian culture,” he said. “Most people are familiar with poutine.”

People are susceptible to overeating by buying high-calorie, high-fat content foods after drinking, Kingston said.

Smoke’s country-style poutine — with bacon strips, chicken breast and sautéed mushrooms with caramelized onions — has just over 1,400 calories in a regular-sized portion, nearly half of the recommended calorie intake for a male in his 20s. Despite this, Kingston said, people come into Smoke’s knowing what they’re in for.

“We’re not the healthiest option. Most people come in here knowing that they’re not going to be getting salad and chicken,” he said.

While overeating food is one thing, gluttony is a more overarching concept, said English professor Heather Evans.

“It’s not the same as overeating,” she said.

Evans, who teaches a course on food literature, said the word ‘gluttony’ has to do with its early Christian origins where it was established as one of the seven deadly sins.

“Gluttony is associated with that sinfulness,” she said. “You’re casting a different moral tone on it by using that term.”

The word was used to describe

“an indulgent appetite,” and to exercise some sort of control over the human body, Evans said.

“Part of that has to do with fears of the body, the unpredictability of the body.”

According to Evans, gluttony’s place as one of the seven deadly sins meant it was in part used to control desires perceived as dangerous by the Church.

With a changing view on Christianity, though, the emphasis on gluttony as a sinful thing may have changed.

“Maybe one of the influences has been changing attitudes towards who or what the authorities are that are guiding us,” she said. “We no longer have a clear obvious pattern connected to the church authority.” Food has been a social interest since about 200 years ago, Evans said.

“It’s towards the end of the 18th century that you see the emergence of gastronomy, the art of fine dining,” she said. “That’s emerging alongside cultural shifts towards civilizing people.”

It’s around the same time that restaurants were seen as social sites.

Along with them were the first railroad-side food carts — the humble beginnings of today’s fast food joints.

These were places where, according to Evans, people became more conscious of their bodies and how they would eat on-the-go.

“You’ve got a real consciousness of the body while trying to gain that sustenance,” she said.

According to Evans, this was also the same period of time disorderly eating was beginning to be defined.

“They were concerned with how food was manifesting itself in different ways, how food is becoming pathological or problematic,” she said.

In more recent times, however, globalization has helped play a part in how we think about food.

“The last couple of decades have seen a broad interest in food — the ecology of food, the economics of food, the relation between food and health and fitness.”

While interest in food was increasing in recent decades, food itself was becoming more available for the masses, said University of Toronto education professor Jennifer Sumner.

“It’s only during the 20th century certainly in Western society that the availability of food became so universal that we didn’t have to worry all the time about where our next meal would be coming from.”

With governments subsidizing certain food production costs, like corn, came lower food prices, Sumner said.

“There’s this sort of induced gluttony through the pricing mechanisms,” she said.

According to Sumner, government subsidization of corn production costs rendered a surplus of corn syrup — something that can be found in many inexpensive foods today, as opposed to healthier ones.

“We don’t subsidize fruits and vegetables,” she said.

It’s led to the lower class sustaining more weight, she said. It’s a reversal of years past when only the upper classes could afford to eat a lot.

“What has evolved over the second half of the 20th century is that now overweight people are no longer characteristic of the wealthy class,” she said. “Now they’re characteristic of the lower class because that’s the only food that they can afford.”

Sumner said the consistent ingestion of high-calorie food, rather than overeating, leads to unhealthy lifestyles.

“You may not be overeating it, but you are eating it three times a day every day,” she said. “Obesity isn’t always a question of gluttony.”

Sumner said that gluttony and overeating, however, seem to be characteristics of a 21st century Western way of life.

It’s a clear opposite from communities that aren’t as sedentary, such as rural places where much of the food is produced.

“If they’re farming communities, fishing communities, they work it off,” she said.

With the colder months comes a string of holidays that encourage overindulgence — this Thanksgiving weekend being one of them.

“Certainly at this time of year there is perhaps some overeating and if it’s only once in a while that really isn’t a problem,” she said. “If it becomes part of a longstanding way of life then you’ve got a serious problem.”


addiction, consumption, Food, overeating, Thanksgiving

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