On Eating Virtuously
In her essay on the paleo diet in the latest New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert aptly describes our modern attitude toward food: “For almost as long as people have been eating, they’ve been imposing rules about what can and can’t be consumed,” she writes. But many of these historic restrictions were religious in nature, designated by one’s spiritual beliefs. They had to do with the cleanliness or set-apartness of a religious group. They often consisted in periodic fasts that were meant to draw the community’s attention away from momentary, physical concerns, and to fixate their attention on the divine, or on each other.
In today’s world, however, the ethics of gastronomic consumption all come back to the self, and the idealized “healthy body.” Whether it consists of juicing, raw food, paleo dieting, or vegan eating, modern restrictions tend to be more diverse, eccentric, and extreme. And unlike the prohibitions of days past, these diets tend to fixate on the human body, rather than striving to look past it. Unfortunately, such dietary pursuits tend to push us toward extremes—either of excess or defect. And such attitudes, in any area of life, are more prone to vice than virtue. Our society needs to develop a more virtuous attitude toward foods: but how do we cultivate it?
Virtue necessitates moderation—it is an intentional discipline of choosing the mean between excess and defect. Thus, eating at McDonald’s every day is a vice of excess; going on extreme juicing cleanses is, I would argue, a vice of defect.
It really doesn’t matter what diet you look at: many suffer from problems of excess and defect. Eating purely raw foods is a healthy option, perhaps—except for the fact that, as Michael Pollan points out, cooking enables our bodies to absorb essential nutrients in food. We have to eat much more of those raw foods in order to get the same amount of nutrients. “It’s very hard to have culture, it’s very hard to have science, it’s very hard to have all the things we count as important parts of civilization if you’re spending half of all your waking hours chewing,” he says. So if you want to gnaw on carrots all day, go ahead—but it might be simpler to toss them in some olive oil, salt, and pepper, and stick them in the oven.
Many diets completely exclude foods that, while not the epitome of healthiness, are still good and delightful. Americans have begun to look with shock and concern upon foods like croissants and freshly baked breads—because of the carbs, the terrible evil carbs. We forget that a carbohydrate is a modern measurement meant to quantify and measure our eating habits. It’s not a religious rule to be broken or followed. We forget that one croissant can be delightful—and that five is probably too much. Instead, we put foods into “good” or “bad” boxes. We eat sweet potatoes, but ban any other variety. We buy buckwheat and spelt flours, but avoid all-purpose flour with a passion.
There’s another, equally dangerous extreme we can fall into: we can look with derision and scorn on those who try to improve their diets, while eating our burgers and drinking our Cokes with relish (and perhaps some devilish glee). We can eat two slices of pie, and Instagram a picture with the hashtag #sorrynotsorry. Of course, enjoying food in all its forms is a good thing (at least this pie addict thinks so). We should have a healthy appreciation for the glories of dessert and burgers. But this, too, requires moderation. Even eating dessert requires a form of contemplative virtue.
What happens when our eating becomes a list of do’s and don’ts—a pattern of pure excess, or pure defect? We live in a world in which shows like Biggest Loser draw the attention and accolades of millions—a show purely fixated on losing, on shrinking numbers. But then, when the numbers shrink too low, society rears its ugly head in anger—and we insist the numbers go up again. It’s all a number game, a frightening fluctuation between too much and too little.
We don’t have to do paleo diets or juice cleanses. We can eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and cook from scratch whenever possible. We can (and indeed, should) eat croissants and pie, but perhaps not for every meal. We can sip and savor wine, one glass at a time. We can exercise consistently, drink water often, chew instead of inhaling. We can acknowledge that sustenance is just that—sustenance.
As C.S. Lewis put it in The Screwtape Letters, there are two types of gluttony: one of much, and one of little. Modern versions of gluttony amongst sophisticated people, he wrote, are often characterized by close attention to diet and an insistence on less of one thing or another—even when it puts other people at an inconvenience. (And he wrote this before gluten-free and paleo diets even existed!) Such a person, writes Screwtape, is wholly enslaved to sensuality, but doesn’t realize it because “the quantities involved are small.” Yet “what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?”
Food has become the anxious obsession of our society, and it’s time we put food back in its place. This is what virtue is about: a modest pursuit of the mean, a sweet enjoyment of life that is considerate and moderate. No matter the diet regimen you embrace (or reject), your life will not fall into health until it falls into balance. Hopefully, with time, we will learn that all things were created good, and should be enjoyed—in moderation.