Engineering firms report increasing difficulty designing airtight respirators to protect American factory workers and firefighters. The culprit? The changing shape of our faces. While 60% of Americans are overweight and 30% are obese, 87% of all firefighters, 73% of American healthcare workers and 91% of those in law enforcement are overweight or obese.1 What’s happening?
Once upon a time humans got along fine on two daily meals. Improved agricultural production and food distribution bumped us to “three squares a day.” By 1957, the average fast food hamburger contained 210 calories. Today it’s 618. The average bag of movie theater popcorn had 170 calories 40 years ago. Today it’s 900. Taco Bell now offers the “fourth meal” while the Mall of America in Minneapolis sells deep fried Twinkies and Snickers bars. We’re full of it.
The tightening belt affects healthcare and fuel consumption. The Economist reports given the current rise of Type II diabetes, the American healthcare system will be overwhelmed in twenty years.2 Type II diabetes is usually preventable by exercise and proper diet. At the pump, each extra pound of body weight in all of today’s vehicles results in the need for more than 39 million gallons of extra gasoline usage each year. In the October-December issue of the journal The Engineering Economist, scientists calculated that the tab for overweight people in a vehicle – with gas prices averaging $3 a gallon – amounts to $7.7 million a day, or $2.8 billion a year.
“Tell me what thou eatest, and I will tell thee what thou art,” wrote French gastronomer Jean Authelme Brillat-Savarin. The problem may not be what we eat. Nor how much (although most of us eat too much). It might be we’ve forgotten why we eat.
The ancient “four-chapter” gospel explained why God made food.3 In “chapter one,” food and eating contribute to our sense of well being. God created a wonderful world and provided “everything that has breath of life in it” for our food.4 Of course food has a utilitarian purpose of renewing our bodies – yet it didn’t have to be that way. God could have made a world where eating wasn’t needed. He didn’t. He made food primarily for our delight and secondarily for our sustenance. Seeing, smelling, touching, chewing and swallowing ought to be pleasurable to our senses. The key is delighting in food in the right way – not too little or too much.
Martin Luther described people as drunkards who fall off a horse to the right, then get back on and fall off to the left. Eating too little is a disorder that disdains food and ignores God’s goodness. Eating too much deifies food, making it a god. Derived from the Latin gluttire, meaning to gulp down or swallow, gluttony is eating too much too fast. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it was considered one of the seven deadly sins. Eating too little or too much is wrong because it brings a false sense of well being.
We can begin applying the brakes with periodic fasting or at least slowing down when we eat. God installed a gastronomical governor in every human being to crimp the lines and tell us when “enough is enough.” This switch, however, comes with a timer. “We don’t have immediate feedback from our bodies telling us we’ve eaten enough,” says Janet Polivy, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Canada. “It takes about 20 minutes for food to be digested enough that glucose gets into the bloodstream and the hormones start working.” This brief window of time is why we’re getting fatter in an age of readily available fast food.
Let’s be clear: the fast food industry is not necessarily the bad guy. In a perfect world, food would be readily available to all. Nor should Christians be people who “advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in…”5 The problem with fast food is that it tends to make eating reflexive rather than reflective. We gulp down food, on average, in less than 10 minutes. “Our kitchens and other eating places are more and more resembling filling places,” says Wendell Berry.6 The faster our food, the more difficult it is to know whether – of even if – we’re hungry. We don’t give it a second thought as we swig our Big Gulps and chow down on Chalupas.
If someone prefers film to fasting, try Babette’s Feast. It tells the story of a French chef who experiences an unexpected windfall and uses all her earnings to create an elaborate, multi-course feast for a group of poor villagers. The dinner is a sumptuous yet slow affair leading people to think twice. The second thought can be more satisfying.
And perhaps make us a little leaner.
1 Jane Zhang, “Changing Face: Respirator Testing Gets an Adjustment for Workplace,” Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2007, A1
2 “America’s Diabetes Epidemic,” Economist, February 15, 2007
3 The four chapters teach us how life ought to be (Creation), what life actually is (The Fall), how life can be made better (Redemption) and what it will be one day (i.e., the final Restoration).
4 Genesis 1:30
5 I Timothy 4:3
6 Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (New York: North Point Press, 1990), p.147