Everyone and their dog has an opinion on diets in general, and often on your diet in particular, so I feel a bit guilty for adding more noise to that conversation, but as I see more and more dubious books propping up in the Christian (and specifically Catholic) sphere I think we are at high risk of being absorbed into the culture that surrounds us rather than transforming it. Diets like the not-a-diet “Light Weigh” programme, and intermittent fasting lifestyles like the one promoted in Eat, Fast Feast walk the very thin line between challenging Western comfort in order to help our spiritual lives, and spiritualising weight loss because that’s the standard of the world we live in.
The truth is, food is key to Catholic culture. After all, the summit of our faith is a mystical banquet. Not only food is necessary for our sustenance, but sharing food in one of the ways we get together in many cultures, but especially Judeo-Christian ones. Questions around how virtues apply to the way we eat are legitimate and, I’d argue, necessary. However, often our conversation around this subject is coloured by the assumptions of what is termed “diet culture” (which Christy Harrison, the nutritionist author of “Anti-Diet”, defines as the system of beliefs that “worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue”) rather than remaining strictly in the sphere of what benefits our spiritual life.
Applying the virtue of temperance to the sphere of food is not just about avoiding over-consumption. Excessive concern with our food the other way around is not virtuous either. Daniel Rabourdin (host of the Theology of Food on EWTN) made some interesting points in an interview with Regina Magazine about the importance of enjoying what we eat. This is a sentiment shared by Emily Stimpson Chapman, author of “The Catholic Table”, who has a history of eating disorders.
Making peace with food and giving us unconditional permission to eat is also one of the principles behind intuitive eating, which is the lifestyle and mindset to which I subscribe. It is the one that, while not perfect, I see as the closest to a Catholic view of eating on the market because it teaches us to trust our bodies which God has created and therefore are inherently good. I will speak of my journey with intuitive eating in a follow-up post. Today I want to focus on nutrition, what it should be, and why it matters.
Nutrition is, at its core, the process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth. It is a morally neutral process, and when we talk about good nutrition versus bad nutrition what it should mean is that the needs have been met. It is not a moral judgement on the choices we make, but our culture has made it to become so. The problem with this mentality is that we created a one-size-fit all idea of what is a healthy diet, when each body (and lifestyle) is different and has different needs. For example, a diet of mostly greens is a killer for someone with an irritable bowel, as is a vegetarian diet where most of the protein comes from pulses. In reality, people need diets that are tailored for them, but not many people use nutritionists and dietitians unless they have a special need for it.
More often than not, we associate these medical professionals with weight loss, and a lot of the discourse around food and what we should eat is cloaked in the assumption that we eat to manage weight (whether it is to increase it, decrease it or maintain it). This is problematic not because of the implications it has for bodies that don’t meet the standard, although that’s true too, but because most people with this mentality (including doctors) use weight as the indicator without differentiation between the different aspects that form our body mass. First of all, some of our body fat is essential (for women that’s as high as 10% to 13% of our body composition, but you can see the full breakdown here). Then we have bone, water, muscle, organs, and tissues, all of which have weight. A regular scale doesn’t differentiate, and things like the discredited BMI make many athletes appear overweight. Despite these obvious flaws, that’s still what you get when you visit your GP.
On average, 59% of our body weight is water. Then we have our bones, which can be a small, medium, or large frame. As it happens, I have a wrist of precisely 6.5 inches, which for a woman of my height is a large frame, and it has been a sore point all my life. Around 15% of a person’s total body weight is determined by their bones. Then there are the various organs, and, of course, the muscle mass, which determines different health for two bodies of the same weight. And, lastly, weight fluctutes, especially for women. I trust that you are now persuaded that focusing nutrition around the number on the scale is a pointless exercise.
It is also a potentially dangerous one for our spiritual life, as it’s easy to make an idol out of that number on the scale and the things, like nutrition and exercise, that help us achieve it. It can also be dangerous on other levels, like developing an eating disorder, so since, as Catholics, we need to be wary of making an idol out of something it is fundamental than we go back to the basics of what nutrition is for. Robert F. Gotcher wrote, in an essay published in The Linacre Quarterly, “what if the body is the necessary communication of the spirit and a necessary expression of the self. What if the body is not only that, but also a word from God Himself about Himself and about who we are?”. He is posing a challenge to healthcare professionals in general, but I think it is especially poignant when it comes to nutrition, a field where the view of the body as a machine is very prevalent.
In the Theology of the Body of St Pope John Paul II, we are taught that “Everyone uses his(/her) body to communicate the self in love to the people he(/she) encounters”. Does the way we approach food in our society help us to communicate the self in love? I don’t think so. It lacks the sacramental view of the world that is a demand of our faith, and our bodies are not seen as a gift from God anymore. And because we put so much emphasis on food to change the body, then food also stops being a gift, too. It becomes our enemy, to be defeated in our quest to control our body. Our focus on weight can make us neglect our body’s needs, leading us to becoming unhealthy because we look only at one value to judge if food is good or bad rather than whether it gives us what the body needs to function in the lifestyle we lead.
As Catholics, our duty is to love God with all our hearts, mind, soul and strength and love our neighbours as ourselves (Luke 10:27). Setting aside the ways in which a bad relationship with food is a way in which we set ourselves up for failure in the “as ourselves” part (a topic for another time), this duty demands us that we keep good nutrition in the definition that I laid out at the start. We need to eat in a way that meets our needs, including keeping our mood good so that we are good to others, so we can let ourselves enjoy food while seeking to eat what is best for us to be at our best when we face the days that we offer to the Lord as a fulfillment of our vocation.
The Food Medic Podcast by Dr Hazel Wallace. I mentioned it before with regards to skincare, but she covers a variety of topics to do with nutrition and holistic health with other experts in different related fields.
Don’t Salt My Game with Dr Laura Thomas and Food Psych with Christy Harrison for specifically intuitive eating.
Emily Stimpson Chapman’s blog The Catholic Table.
Sally Clarkson’s book “The Lifegiving Table“. I just want to be adopted into her family for like a month.
Rooted in the Word
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
Genesis 1:29 (NRSVCE)
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.