Why We as Catholics Need to Reexamine Our Relationship with Food.  Today

As Catholics, we pride ourselves on being protectors and pursuers of God’s design in the world.  Even in situations that aren’t popular and are downright counterculture, Catholicism has long professed that we are to honor and preserve God’s natural and divine law.

Yet somewhere along the way, as battles rage on regarding highly emotional, politicized topics, we as a Church have quietly found ourselves slipping further away from God’s image and likeness in one of the most important, and ubiquitous areas of our lives:  what we eat and drink every day. 

In order to consider this topic further, we must first start with basic biology, which of course simply reflects how God designed us.  The brain is only about 2% of our body weight, but it consumes about 20-40% of the oxygen and nutrients available.  At any given time, 1/6 of the blood flowing through our body is in our brain, which includes much of what we have absorbed from the food and drinks we have taken in.  As Dr. Bonnie Kaplan once said, the brain is a needy, greedy organ. 

A large percentage of what the brain (and body) needs comes from what we eat and drink.  As one of many examples, in the process of brain metabolism, enzymes are necessary to convert chemicals in food into neurotransmitters (brain chemicals).  However, these enzymes depend on many different cofactors, which are composed of vitamins and minerals.  Let’s take the example of how the amino acid, tryptophan (found in foods like turkey, chicken, and milk), is converted to serotonin, a neurotransmitter closely involved with mood, learning, sleep, memory and many other functions.  Taking only a tiny corner of the chemical pathway (i.e., a few metabolic phases out of a thousand), we see that more than 10 micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are utilized in this process.  Without an adequate supply of these and many other micronutrients as cofactors, this enzymatic transformation is compromised.  Thus, our ability to convert chemicals in food to chemicals in the brain is limited, and can affect our availability of serotonin and other neurotransmitters. 

Over the last decade, it has become increasingly clear that poor nutrition is intimately linked to various diseases that cause extensive suffering and early mortality for millions of people.  A recently published meta-analysis of almost 10 million individuals, by far the largest of its kind ever done, further reinforces the inconvenient truth that is becoming impossible to deny.  The study looked at the association of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and various diseases.  UPFs are highly processed foods with little or no nutritional value.  It has been found that 58% of the share of dietary energy of those in the United States is derived from UPFs; a 2021 JAMA study found that 67% of the energy derived from food for kids ages 2-19 was from UPFs, which has continued to increase over the past two decades.

The meta-analysis found a significant direct association between 32 different conditions and greater consumption of UPFs.  This includes disorders of mental health, cardiac functioning, cancer, respiratory health, GI, and metabolic functioning.

Meanwhile, in 1990, no state in the US had an obesity rate of greater than 19 percent.  Two decades later, no state had an obesity rate less than 20 percent.  Being overweight was well on its way to becoming the “new normal.”  Ten years later, in 2020, 12 states, my home state of Indiana being one of them, had an adult obesity rate of at least 35 percent. Mississippi became the first state over 40 percent.  Over 71% of adults today in the US are overweight or obese.

If overweight has become the new normal in our society, then it is safe to say that gluttony is the new normal in our Church even as a significant part of the blame lies in societal factors and trends.  As someone who loves rich, salty foods like the next person, it pains me to acknowledge this obvious reality, as there is no evidence that Catholics are any better off in regard to above statistics than the rest of the world. 

In fact, there is a case to be made that we are even in a worse position, and I daresay that our Lenten fish fries and pre-Christmas sales of high-calorie rich foods are just two examples of how we continue to ignore God’s design, and what is undoubtedly a significant driver of unnecessary suffering and death in our world today.  While the fish fries might be great for community and fundraising, clear evidence suggest that they are at best woefully inadequate as a Lenten fast, and at worst, a direct contributor to one of the leading causes of early mortality and disability in our world today.

I realize that saying this instantly makes me unpopular with many Catholics, and that some might regard my previous statements as sacrilegious.  But before you petition to have me ex-communicated from the Church, I would like to come back to one simple fact:  I didn’t design the human body.  God did.  And if God wanted us to be able to consume rich, high calorie processed food as we desired on a daily basis without incurring all the costs associated with it, He certainly could have done this.  But deep within His mysterious wisdom, He apparently ordained that while food is one of the greatest, most pleasurable gifts provided, He never intended for us to depend on it in ways that could lead to personal, relational, and financial ruin, not to mention any other costs that only God can deem as intended.  Ironically, for all of the healing miracles officially recognized by the Catholic Church, not a single one includes an instantaneous cure of obesity. 

Midst what appears to be a grim appraisal, the reality is that eating according to God’s design is not only one of the best gifts you can give yourself, but also those you love the most.   Once we begin to discover the incredible ways that nutrition is designed to fuel, sustain, and heal our bodies, all the while providing for countless options to experience pleasurable eating in a godly, healthy way, we no longer have to regard our physician’s advice as a curmudgeon attempt to curb our fun and our comfort.  Rather, in pursuing the essence of what food is about for ourselves and for our Church, we become amazed at the opportunities that lie in store, and the ways in which we can experience God’s love in the process.

But this simply won’t happen if we stick with the status quo, and quietly turn a blind eye to a reality that is burgeoning right in front of us all the while being quick to criticize other areas not necessarily so personal in our own lives.  The irony is that if there ever was a topic most controversial and central to our Church, it would be that which gives us our daily bread.  The reality that Christ chose to come to us in the very way that we find ourselves most dependent on, and yet which we regularly contradict the Father’s design, should immediately give us pause.  As Catholics consider the Eucharist, Christ himself, the greatest gift of ever provided to us, do we not consider that the rest of our nutritional sustenance should also be of at least somewhat sacred form?  Christ could have come to us fully in many different ways, yet He chose the pathway of human consumption as the mechanism by which this would occur.  Above all of the other physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits of eating according to God’s design, would we want not just to honor Him at Communion, but also in all the ways that we celebrate and sustain our lives in what we consume? 

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