Damon Linker writes for The Week about America’s struggle with obesity:
… A lot of us go about much of our lives in a state that could be described as a low-grade anxiety attack — and stuffing our stomachs with vast quantities of unhealthy food to soothe it, even if the resulting weight gain and worries about health problems ultimately contribute to making the anxiety worse.
What’s going on here?
We find one helpful suggestion in, of all places, the pages of Martin Heidegger’s philosophical masterwork Being and Time — at least part of which is concerned with exploring the multitude of ways that people flee from their mortality.
All of us know, intellectually, that we will die. But Heidegger suggests that we only come to grasp it existentially in the mood of anxiety. In anxiety, the average everyday pursuits that normally occupy and absorb us recede and appear drained of meaning. … It can be a chilling experience — and so we flee from it, throwing ourselves more fully and more deeply into the world, finding comfort and solace in its seeming (but deceptive) solidity. Addiction and obsession are particularly intense forms of this fleeing into the world, Heidegger proposes, since they turn one particular entity within the world into the nearly exclusive focus of our existence.
But if that’s the case, then an obsession with food — the consumption of which assimilates worldly entities into our very selves, causing a visceral feeling of fullness, which compensates for the haunting perception of existential emptiness that accompanies anxiety — may be among the most potent ways to ward off an existential crisis.
If Linker is right, food obsession—be it in excess or in defect—is often tied to a deeper angst, one we’re trying to assuage at every opportunity. Many of our food fears or indulgences are tied to a sort of worship: we make food an item of first importance, and it becomes impossible to resist. Either we are tethered to health with unbreakable bonds of fear—fear of mortality, perhaps, fear of a lack of control, fear of imperfection or public shaming—or we are tied to unhealthy foods by cravings for love or safety or comfort.
Our attitudes toward food often also seem inextricably tied to our community: we eat according to the habits and customs of those we share space and time with, and often according to the collective fears or pressures they impress on us.
For instance: I grew up in a lower-to-middle income area in midwestern Idaho. The county beside mine was one of the poorest in America. The area was full of large (and thus frugal) families, along with many immigrants. It was the sort of place where you stopped by Taco Bell or Wendy’s after church, where grabbing a Carl’s Jr. burger after a baseball game or school activity was simply a matter-of-course. Many moms I knew were religious coupon-clippers, stocking up on breakfast cereals and canned foods in order to stretch their groceries as far as possible. My mother knew how to incorporate fruits, veggies, and whole grains into every meal—but overall, the region was not very health-focused. If there was any sort of pressure exerted on the community, it was to be frugal, to avoid excess spending. The organic movement was seen as wasteful, those who shirked fast-food restaurants were seen as snobbish.
When I went to college, the communal eating landscape changed. I became acquainted with the salad crowd: salad for lunch and dinner, most often, piled high with vegetables and just lightly tossed with vinegar. There was a greater emphasis on the various dietary components of a dish—carbs, calories, sugar. I became acquainted with east coast eating, which is most often more health-oriented and restrictive than eating in midwestern or rural areas. And indeed, there are a variety of good and admirable principles embraced here, principles I’ve adopted. But I also saw the extremes to which this healthy eating could be taken: I watched women turn rejecting glances toward the dessert table every night, saw them painstakingly order egg-white omelets with no cheese and only x amount of veggies at the breakfast counter, heard rumors of sugar and fat that made peanut butter an unhealthy indulgence. Even whole grains seemed increasingly off-limits: carbs were viewed with a fearful or tentative eye. I began to feel dismay and frustration. What could we eat, then, besides a smattering of spinach and balsamic vinaigrette? Would peanut butter—the dearest of all snack foods—be forever tainted in my memory?
This is when I joined another community: one very much aligned with from-scratch cooking aficionados like Michael Pollan, but also very flexible, and meant to be geared toward moderation. My sister-in-law calls it the 80-20 crowd—people who try to eat healthy at least 80 percent of the time, but don’t mind a little splurging around 20 percent of the time. We still eat lots of fruits, veggies, oatmeal, et cetera—but there’s also the occasional delectable doughnut, juicy burger, slice of grease-oozing pizza. And they’re enjoyed to the fullest. One could say that this is an attempt to eat according to Aristotle’s conception of virtue.
Just as we can be tethered to certain food habits by our fears, as Linker points out, we are tethered to our community and often deeply influenced by its habits and mores. Those who live in D.C., filled as it is with fit people and SweetGreen stores, are more likely to feel public pressure to live and eat similarly. Those who live in an area where people sneer at the obsessively healthy are more likely to stop by KFC for dinner. But the two go together: we face pressure from within and without to live—and eat—a certain way. It seems incredibly complicated, and indeed it is.
I often wonder if these modern complications and pressures surrounding food are at least somewhat tied to the fading of religious food codes in America. Throughout history, people have faced pressure to eat a certain way, within certain limits: but these eating tenets used to be tied to one’s religion (and in many countries, still are). Thus, they weren’t really about the self, and they weren’t just about one’s community, either: they were reminders of our spiritual state, of our inner wellbeing. They were often reminders of the importance of nature, and of the care and stewardship we should show towards animals and plants alike. They were meant to foster self-control and an uplifted eye: an attitude that forsook the self and its craven appetites for something deeper, more lasting. They were meant to turn us toward the divine, and thus to assuage our anxieties and encourage our faith. Patterns of moderation, self-control, and self-sacrifice weren’t just about getting a lean, toned body, or being accepted by one’s peers—though care for the body and involvement in community were also seen as important. But in subjugating the self and its appetites, the goal went beyond the temporal and stretched toward the eternal. Choosing to fast, or to partake in a period of restrictive eating for a season like Lent, was in fact about looking beyond oneself.
This, too, is a community I would like to join. The community it ties us to is not one of shaming or judgment, but rather one of accountability and support—one that reminds us to look beyond ourselves, and to consider our own cravings secondary to the larger earthly and spiritual landscape that surrounds us.
Linker is right to see the obesity epidemic in America as a spiritual crisis. But I would argue that it’s also, by extension, a community crisis: the result of an atmosphere in which secular voices have adopted religious language and forsaken both moderation and reflection. To transcend this crisis requires us to find correct voices: for the secular, this may involve adopting a moderate and considerate community, like the 80-20 crowd. For the religious, it may involve reconsidering the dietary codes that have been forsaken with time—not in order to become shackled to legalism, but rather, to be released from it.