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Posted May 04 2012 11:59am
We are all gluttons, more or less. Augustine was right when he wrote, “Who is it Lord, that does not eat a little more than necessary?“ However, I believe that there are various categories of gluttons ranging from those who consider themselves overindulging when they eat one more M&M than appetite dictates, to competitive eaters who win prizes for devouring stacks of food appropriate for a hippopotamus. These eating athletes should heed the warnings of St. Gregory who claimed,”When the belly is distended by gluttony, the virtues of the soul are destroyed by lust.” Foodies and food critics could also be tagged as gluttons, although they would dispute this. Thomas Acquinas would see them as tempted by the vice of gluttony because such people seek “costly meats”, costly foods in general, and want foods to be prepared too nicely. Of course they also continue to eat after they are no longer hungry. According to Acquinas, all of us are gluttons when we eat for pleasure, novelty, and taste; we should instead be content with simple foods whose only purpose is to take away hunger.

Interestingly, gluttony during biblical and post biblical times was not condemned as a major cause of obesity. Acquinas stated that the glutton does not intent to harm his body but seeks food because of the pleasure he receives in eating. If injury results to his body, (think obesity) it is accidental. There were no stores selling triple X size robes at the time to remind the glutton of the impact his and/or her excessive intake.

It's now the resulting disease from gluttony that concerns us. The Government statistics on the prevalence of obesity in 2010 reports that over 30% of adults are obese and 17% of children between 2 and 19 are obese. The health risks associated with obesity, as well as the increased health costs are well known.

But is this epidemic of weight gain caused by people who like being gluttons?
Yes and No. I propose that there are two kinds of gluttons: intentional and involuntary.

Intentional gluttons delight in eating whatever they like, in as large an amount as they can. I saw a woman a few nights ago in a restaurant served what looked like a 20 ounce steak with a gigantic baked potato. To my amazement, after filling the potato with 4 or 5 pats of butter, she ate everything on her plate. It is hard to believe that it took that much food to take away her hunger. Intentional gluttons rejoice in ‘all you can eat’ eating venues like cruises or Sunday brunch buffets, because such situations give legitimacy to their food intake. Foods are savored for their taste and little attention may be paid to the weight gain potential of eating large amounts of eggs, butter, cream and bacon.

Involuntary gluttons may also overeat or eat inappropriate foods but they seek food not for the sensory pleasure it gives them but because of eating such foods improves their mood and controls their appetite.
Let me describe some types of involuntary gluttons.

The most common gluttons are those (you and I may be among them) who feel a need to snack in the late afternoon or a few hours after dinner. The need to eat is not driven by hunger, but a nagging feeling of wanting something on which to munch. Usually this feeling is associated with restlessness, impatience, distractibility and fatigue. The foods sought are sweet or starchy- crunchy snacks.

Winter darkness also produces involuntary gluttony during for the months with minimal light. Lack of light causes a depression called ‘winter blues’ or Seasonal Affective Disorder. People eat large amounts of food intake, especially carbohydrates, and this overeating may persist for months.
Premenstrual women are involuntary gluttons, usually for chocolate. They may eat carbohydrates excessively during the last few days of their menstrual cycle, and like people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, feel depressed, angry, irritable, and exhausted.

Others are involuntary gluttons because they can’t stop eating when a sufficient amount of food has been consumed. Psychotropic drugs such as antidepressants and mood stabilizers prevent people from feeling full or satisfied after eating. People on such drugs may eat two meals, one after the other, or snack constantly.

Why are carbohydrates the preferred food sought by these involuntary gluttons? When we studied them, we found that they eat carbohydrate because they have learned, perhaps unconsciously, that after carbs are consumed, they experience an improvement in mood, increased satiety, or both.
These improvements in mood and satiety are associated with the increase in serotonin synthesis that follows carbohydrate intake. When any carbohydrate, except fruit, is eaten, an insulin mediated change in the profile of amino acids in the blood occurs, and the uptake into the brain of the amino acid tryptophan increases. Tryptophan is the precursor of serotonin, and its availability drives the synthesis of this neurotransmitter.

Behavioral testing of afternoon carbohydrate snackers, women with PMS and people with winter depression showed a consistent pattern: better mood, increased focus, calmness and greater energy. Indeed the most significant changes were among women with PMS who found that even a small amount of carbohydrate took the edge off of their premenstrual symptoms.

A weight loss program based on the consumption of a small carbohydrate snack ( 20-30 g with less than 5 g each of protein and fat) two or three times a day was effective in increasing satiety among people on medications whose side-effect caused overeating.

One reason that these populations of involuntary gluttons tend to gain weight is that they often eat more than is needed to bring about serotonin synthesis. Only 30grams or so of a fat free or very low fat carbohydrate must be eaten. This is about the carbohydrate content in a cup of plain cheerios. People also may consume the carbohydrate with protein (milk with the cheerios), or following a protein containing meal (eating desert after an entrée of chicken or fish. But bear in mind that when carbohydrate is eaten along with protein, or immediately following protein intake, no serotonin is made.

Involuntary gluttons also make the mistake of choosing carbohydrates for their sensual rather than neurochemical effects, eating doughnuts rather than dry toast, or French fries rather than steamed rice. The fat in these carbohydrate foods not only slows digestion and thus serotonin synthesis, it also may contribute to weight gain.

But if the right kind and amount of carbohydrates are eaten, then everyone, glutton or non-glutton alike, do not have to worry about the sin of overindulgence. Indeed, they will instead fulfill the biblical injunction from the book of Deuteronomy: eat and you shall be satisfied.
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