Busting a Gut

Michael Metzger

“Tell me what thou eatest, and I will tell thee what thou art.” Let’s hope Jean Authelme Brillatt-Savarin wasn’t right. In the 1980s, Americans collectively gained more than a billion pounds. In the 1990s, that figure doubled. It’s still rising. Obesity is a contributing factor to our health care crisis. To conquer it will “require a complete new awareness,” researchers write, “and this seems a distant prospect.” It’s remote because health care is not the primary crisis we’re facing.

For decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have conducted surveys with tens of thousands of Americans. They discovered that since the late 1970s, men have become on average 17 pounds heavier. Women are 19 pounds heavier. The proportion of overweight children has more than doubled. The proportion of overweight adolescents, ages 12 to 19, has more than tripled.1 Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker notes: “Such a broad social development seems to require an explanation on the same scale. Something big must have changed in America to cause so many people to gain so much weight so quickly.” In fact, something big did change. The culture.

Culture is the invisible matrix of ideas, images, and the items produced by institutions and influential individuals that shape our assumptions and actions. That’s a mouthful. Let’s start with ideas. In ancient cultures, social customs flourished under sacred canopies. In many places, eating was more than chowing down. In the Near East, sharing food with a guest was the equivalent of making a covenant. Eating was part of a moral story. Overeating was gluttony. It was obscene, since obscene means “without story.”

The idea that behavior is connected to a moral story began to collapse in the late 19th century. In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche announced that God was dead. With no God, there were no morals or meaning. In Nietzsche’s “take” on reality, there is no ought—only is and can. Nietzsche’s ideas however would have died in obscurity had it not been for the literary and political networks cultivated by his sister, Elizabeth. His ideas were also translated into books and art and movies, most notably in the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Slowly but surely, Americans lost the vocabulary of describing behavior, as it ought to be. We could only recognize “the way it is” and what can be done.

What does this have to do with eating? “Ought” acts as a gutter guard against gluttony. With “ought” out of the way, the sky’s the limit when it comes to calories. In 1957 the average fast-food hamburger contained 210 calories. Today it’s 618. In 1969, the average bag of movie-theater popcorn had 170 calories. Today it’s 900. A small bag of McDonald’s French fries contained 200 calories in 1980. Today, it has 230 calories. McDonald’s has now introduced an Angus Burger that contains more than 740 calories. Over the past 20 years, bagels have in swelled on average from 140 to 350 calories each. Researchers comparing dessert recipes in old and new editions of The Joy of Cooking discovered that where the recipes had remained unchanged, the servings sizes were larger. Those born after 1980 have been blindsided by a Big Gulp culture.

They’re also blindsided by our sedentary culture. Personal computers and game stations hit the market in the early 1980s. Sitting became recreation for many. We’re at a point where some Americans consider Wii strenuous exercise. The result is that hospitals buy special wheelchairs and operating tables to accommodate the obese. Americans’ extra bulk costs airlines a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of fuel annually. What we eat—and the way we eat—tells us something about the culture shaping us. David A. Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, says our culture encourages “conditioned hypereating.” In The Evolution of Obesity, Michael L. Power and Jay Schulkin say the human body is now “mismatched” to human culture.

What if it’s the other way around? What if the human culture is now “mismatched” to the human body? What if the solution is not health care? What if the solution is a culture promoting human health? Health care is recognizing “the way it is” and what can be done. Health is considering the way we ought to eat—connecting it to a moral story. This is a problem in a culture where it is considered intolerant to strongly suggest to others how they ought to live—including what they eat. Nothing is obscene anymore.

The financial predictions might change the equation. The extra pounds carried by Americans add 90 billion dollars a year to the country’s medical spending. The Economist reports that given the current rise of type 2 diabetes, the American health-care system will be overwhelmed in twenty years or less. Type 2 diabetes is usually preventable by exercise and proper diet—people eating and keeping fit, as they ought to.

We can’t solve the health care crisis using the same mind that created it. The four authors of Globesity believe we need “a complete new awareness, the re-education of the great mass of consumers, and this seems a distant prospect.” It’s remote because Western culture has deleted ought from its vocabulary. The solution is making a culture where institutions and individuals recognize a universal code—ought-is-can-will—and take it seriously in reshaping the images and items that create our collective eating habits. Human nature and human history tell us that willpower and Wii will not change the equation and keep Americans from busting a gut.

Before he passed away in 2006, Philip Rieff saw dark clouds on the horizon—not unlike C. S. Lewis did in The Abolition of Man. Rieff warned about “the free capacity of the human either to destroy everything created, including himself,” or to improve life as it ought to be. But that required “the language of faith,” he wrote. “Genesis 1:26-27 is the crucial and familiar text: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Rieff concluded: “there cannot be humane self-knowledge without some knowledge of the creator authority.”2 Unless we restore a culture shaped by the ought-is-can-will story, we’ll probably keep busting our guts until we break the bank or worse.

1 Elizabeth Kolbert, “XXXL: Why are we so fat?” The New Yorker, July, 20, 2009 pp. 73-77.
2 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), p. 55.


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  1. I am a bit of a fitness nut. I go to the gym and run multiple times a week. Honestly, I enjoy it, but I realize that I am in the minority. For me it is a simple equation goes-inta (into) = goes-outta (out of), calories I mean. If you don’t balance the scale or teeter-totter tips! How do we convince our brethren to balance? “Hey, you’re fat and eat too much” doesn’t go over well. What’s the elevator pitch/story that gets the doggie-headed tilt?

  2. Troy:

    No doubt that that frontal approach is an affront to most if not many. Try the Socratic approach. “Have you ever wondered why God created us to sustain life and flourish via eating? He doesn’t have to eat and could have also made us this way. Could there be more going on than simply stuffing our faces?” Troy, I’ll try to tease this out more in a few weeks – but try the Socratic approach.

  3. Mike,

    I like this piece and follow Troy’s approach in my own eating. It is clear to anyone who has tried to lose weight and failed, or gained it all back, that simply changing ones behavior is not the answer. People must fundamentally change their view of food and health to make any real progress against the temptation to overeat. Too many people justify their habits based on the norm around them instead of considering what they “ought” to do. The relative comparisons to others simply help them justify eating more than they should and the wrong kinds of foods.

    My struggle in trying to influence people in the right direction on this topic is to come up with clear ways to frame up how they should view food and gluttony. Food is good and meant for nourishment and our enjoyment. However, those who eat what they shouldn’t often take the enjoyment part too far and don’t see the fault in it. In the past I saw their overeating as self-indulgent and a lack of discipline. I wonder if their bigger problem is that they have a warped definition of gluttony, or simply a failure to consider it such a bad thing. Do you think it’s more than that, or is it just that simple?

    I like your suggestion to Troy to take the Socratic approach with people, though I’m afraid that most people will not get past their own ingrained views without something that clearly illustrates the difference in their thinking from how they “ought” to think. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this topic in the future.

    This whole area illustrates a point that Jesus was making in the sermon on the mount. We must change the way we think in order to change our lives. We cannot just change our behavior to see a difference. We must view things the way we were intended to and not just add a little new information on top of our current thinking.

    One of the pastors in my church likes to say that we must change our thinking to change our feelings (independent of our circumstances), which is the way we can truly change our lives. Without changing how we think about things, we have little to no control over our feelings, and changing our lives is nearly impossible if we don’t “feel” like it. We must line up how we think to how we “ought” to think to experience the life we are intended to live.

    Thanks for this insightful piece on a very touchy subject to so many,


  4. Mike and Troy,

    I think part of the answer to Troy’s question is found in how we Americans look at _eating_–as a “function”–as opposed to how most of the civilized world looks at dining–the act of sharing a meal. My theory, which was advanced here http://www.doggieheadtilt.com/refueling/ , is that our instrumental, non-social view of eating is a huge part of the problem.

  5. I am all about developing the Christian mind, and glad for this fabulous piece, and for the good responses. Mark says a pastor in his church says we have to think in a new way in order to feel differently. Books like Head, Hearts, Hands (Hollinger) and Reordered Loves, Reordered Lives (Naugle) remind us that it isn’t quite that simple. The social matrix study that Mike explains so well, our deepest desires and longings, the stuff we do, daily, and care about most, all effect our minds. A deeply Biblical view is more wholistic, I think, and knows the inter-connection and mutual influences of thinking, feeling, doing. I suspect Mark’s pastor might overstate the role of the mind.

  6. Byron, I agree with you completely. Thanks for the additional points. I did not mean to oversimplify the formation of the Christian mind. Ones thinking is impacted by most every part of ones life and not changed simply because one wants to do so. I believe that is why we require God’s help to make any significant change. The point my pastor was trying to make is that we are not entirely subject to our feelings. Instead, we have far greater control over them than most people recognize, by choosing what we think. For example, if I think someone is intentionally running me off the road, I might get angry at the injustice. However, if I think the person is someone who is having a problem and urgently needs to get off the road, I might be more understanding. We need not be controlled by our past thinking, feelings, or the circumstances. Thanks again.

  7. Great piece. Thank you for addressing this issue. This subject is an interest and burden that my wife (who works for a health and wellness foundation) and I have had for years. It has been frustrating at times; we have had very limited success in getting our brothers and sisters to see this as a stewardship issue, an issue of discipleship. We haven’t even been able to get our Christian organization with whom we serve to address this issue at a staff level. We have a Christian doctor here in the Lehigh Valley, a personal friend, who is willing to come and speak to our staff for his costs. Sigh. But there are encouraging signs. We have been able to teach on the subject at our church in Sunday School and some have heard.
    Several years ago my son and I were privileged to worship in an Iranian church with friends in northern California. I was struck at the time by the lack of prayer requests for ill people in the pastors prayer. In our church, much of the pastors prayer is on behalf of those who are ill. Keep beating this drum, Mike. We are with you 100 percent.

  8. I agree that obesity is a serious cultural problem in the US. I have often felt that the protestant church has contributed by its neglecting to warn against the sin of gluttony, and has generally encouraged that sin over the years with old-school pot luck dinners, etc.

    You are right on about the problems of portion sizes in restaurants, and the fattening of America, etc, but I feel that the more interesting questions around our obesity culture would ask why the problem is so much more prevalent among certain socio-demographic groups. It seems to me that one of the big taboos on discussing the true cost of obesity in healthcare is that it is seen as picking on poor southern whites, or blacks or hispanics who are particularly prone to the obesity culture. These are not the kind of people you want to be known for dissing out loud if you are a politician.

    I also wonder if there really is any link between Nietzsche and obesity. After all, his philosophical ideas are a big part of “post-Christian” Europe, yet obesity there is way behind that of the US.

    Some good ideas, though, I had never really thought about obesity as being part of the breakdown of the ought-is-can-will paradigm.

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