What does gluttony actually mean?

When and where did it appear?

The first question is when the term appeared in our history. I suppose that is a matter of interpretation.  Do we understand gluttony to be any way or occasion to fill one’s stomach? So, is the extended feast after killing a mammoth also gluttony? Or a harvest festival after six months of hard work in the fields? Not in my understanding.

I’m thinking more of the rich Romans who loaded their tables with everything delicious that could be found. It is even still disputed whether they – through the overabundant consumption of wine or a special emetic – always spit out the previous course in order to make room for more food. I’m also thinking of the European nobles who, regardless of their starving bondmen, ate a lot of meat and sweets and not infrequently spat them out again after drinking a lot of wine. After all, these feasts were not about celebrating oneself for something one had achieved.

Which criteria make a feast gluttony?

These feasts were a measurelessness. An impertinent way of taking and eating everything that had no regard for others. Above all, it demonstrated that, unlike others, one could just do it. Here, one (fr)ate beyond what was needed. Do you think the nobles gave a single thought to how this food ended up on their table? In my eyes, it is also disrespecting the gifts of our life to just gobble them up. And that only so that no one else gets them. Or to show off one’s wealth and perhaps choke them out again before the end of the meal.

And as these examples show, excessive eating is usually accompanied by excessive drinking. And that often led to the next deadly sin, lust. One more reason to put gluttony on the list of the seven deadly sins. And, by the way, not only through the Catholic Church. For even Greek and Roman philosophers condemned the gluttony and lust of some at the banquets that took place. In ancient times, people who indulged in the vice of gluttony were compared to animals. Yet we know today that there are hardly any wild animals that eat more than necessary.

If we look at these examples, the pleasure of eating and savouring artful dishes is probably only gluttony if it is accompanied by intemperance and recklessness. Table manners, which, by the way, were invented to avoid intemperate and greedy eating, are of no help here.


Does that still exist today?

To come straight to the point: yes, I think so. And not only the craving gobblers, but also the arrogant showoffs. Moreover, our society provides a wonderful basis for each of these gluttony subspecies. An overabundance of food that activates our reward centre on the one hand. An abundant supply of exclusive and extremely expensive foods on the other. And even the trend to focus on healthy and ethically produced foods is perceived by some as such a constraint and restriction of freedom that they resist it with defiant gluttony.

Though limited to the issue of food.

However, the term “gluttony” is now more commonly used to refer to overeating and the resulting obesity. Since we now all have enough information about the consequences of obesity, this kind of gluttony is seen as a failure in personal terms and the people concerned are also accused of social parasitism, since they are driving up the costs of society’s illnesses through their own fault. Gluttony in terms of ethical and moral issues, such as the contribution of monocultures and food distributed globally by aeroplane to climate change, such as the living conditions of humans and animals in food production and the effects of cultivation on the earth’s freshwater balance, on the other hand, are addressed much less frequently.


Why do we “glutton” when we know how immoral and unhealthy it is?

Obviously, our species needs an inner motivator to get going at all. We have to keep rewarding ourselves for doing things that we don’t really feel like doing or that are simply more strenuous than lying on the couch.

There is such a thing as the reward centre.

On the one hand, this is simply a biological structure…

Science has identified the reward centre in our brain, called the “nucleus accumbens”, as a motivator. This “nucleus accumbens” is an entire area in our brain that includes several areas and their neural connections. You have probably heard of the happiness hormone dopamine. In the nucleus accumbens there are numerous dopamine receptors whose activation triggers the feeling of happiness.

Functions in the hypothalamus are basically responsible for triggering the motivation to find something to eat. An area, by the way, that is not far from our nucleus accumbens. However, the whole process is so complex and connected not only with different areas of the brain, but also with our nervous and hormonal systems, that it would fill even more pages.

… but on the other hand it is also “fed” by society.

It is important and interesting to note that – for social reasons – so-called “hedonistic aspects” play an increasing role in the satisfaction of hunger. It means a pleasure of eating, especially nice-looking food, can override actual feeling of satiety. In this context, obesity is caused by a conditioning of the reward system by foods that trigger the release of dopamine particularly well and quickly.

So whereas in the long ago days of humankind, food-seeking activity was triggered by a feeling of hunger, which then triggered a conscious action in the frontal brain, today the image of a delicious piece of cake is enough to trigger the impulse to eat it, thereby activating the reward centre. Excitingly, research suggests that in overweight people the reward response is less intense, requiring constant replenishment. Also, people who have successfully lost weight seem to have to fight more intensely against the greed that arises at the sight of delicious food than people who are always of normal weight.


And why does our reward centre like such unhealthy foods?

Because we are mammals.

The type of food we look for may be explained by our mammalian affiliation. Since breast milk contains both fats and carbohydrates, we look for exactly these foods. However, with the exception of milk, food usually contains either fats or carbohydrates.

Therefore, there are countries with millennia of milk-drinking tradition in which it is possible for many people (more than 80% in Central Europe) to process these foreign proteins without side effects, even as adults. For this to happen, the corresponding gene first had to mutate. Otherwise, the production of the enzyme lactase would drop sharply in all mammals after infancy.

If we have no access to milk, we need food with fat and food with carbohydrates. Because they are more readily available, we look for carbohydrates that are as short-chain as possible. And we find them mainly in sweets and fruits.

Because that’s how we’re being brought up.

Since the information from the reward centre also reaches the hippocampus, which is important for memory and learning, even small children are taught to trigger the reward centre when they are given sweets to eat. As a result – because they have memorised the reaction – they will want sweets again and again.

And because our genes also decide our food preferences.

However, this is not true for all children – not for me, for example. Genetics is the answer to why this is so. Genetics is discovering more and more genes that are responsible for certain eating habits and preferences. Today, for example, it is certain that it is a genetic predisposition whether one prefers sweet or salty food. However, our genes also determine – despite the fact that we only differ by 0.3% from other people – which substances and foods we tolerate and how we process them. In the future, this will lead to individualised diet plans, which will then – hopefully – eliminate all the despair. The despair that arises when a diet variant that worked great for friends doesn’t work at all for you.

In my circle, however, I seem to be clearly in the minority as far as my preference for salty food is concerned. Now, it may also have been very important to our ancestors that sweets strongly activate the reward centre. Anthropological and archaeological studies suggest that more than 60% of our ancestors’ diet consisted of protein-rich food. (You can find an interesting compilation here.) Fruits – whose degree of ripeness is signalled by sweetness – as well as honey can provide much needed vitamins or enzymes in such a diet.


How can you find out “your” healthy foods today?

You can easily find out which foods make you feel energetic, which ones make your stomach produce too much acid, or which ones make your intestines bloat, if you listen to your own body. For example, my daughter stopped eating dairy because it made her bloated and uncomfortable. I, on the other hand, have pretty much eliminated gluten from my diet because I could go straight back to bed after a nice Sunday roll breakfast.

Also, if you listen and look carefully, you can see the effects that excessive sugar consumption has on you personally. If you suffer from bad skin, shallow sleep with frequent awakenings, disturbed hormonal cycles, diarrhoea or genital fungi, unmanageable moods, all these symptoms may be related to your sugar consumption.

Apart from these individually quite unpleasant consequences (which our reward centre cleverly overplays if we give it enough sugar), the sugar problem (in Germany we consume 35 kilos, in Great Britain and the USA even more than 40 kilos per person and year!!) also seems to have something to do with the constantly growing number of overweight people. It says something about our world economic system that we now have twice as many overweight people as undernourished people. (1.6 billion – which, by the way, corresponds to 25% of the total population – compared to about 800,000).


And does society have anything to do with gluttony?

Some say so, …

Searching for other opinions in literature and other publications, I quickly discovered that not everyone shares my opinion, that many still indulge in the sin of gluttony and that this is also caused by society. So there is definitely a discussion about it in Germany (hence the following sources are German-language). Some see our sins as the “price of freedom”. And rages against the asceticism and morality of philosophers and scientists. Still others no longer see sins as dramatic, but as normal expressions of our lives. They recognise in sinners our neighbours and colleagues – the envious, the choleric, the gluttonous and the boring.

…the others like that.

But I am not alone in considering these 7 deadly sins as still relevant today for people’s self-knowledge and for clarity about the state of society. Even if there is no longer a generally binding corset of such “sins”. Others also ask themselves what could be the cause of overdoing in eating (gluttony), of necessary possessions (greed), of competition (envy), defensiveness (anger), sexuality (lust), self-confidence (arrogance) and leisure ( inertia) and recognise loneliness, despair and lack of courage here.

In my view, society creates the conditions for all these deadly sins.

These in turn are made by society. Individualisation, which led to technical and moral innovations, is also the basis for loneliness, not only in the midst of people, but also in the midst of nature that surrounds us and is connected to us. Despair at senseless work without appreciation and all the resulting fears make us forget the measure of sane behaviour, also and especially because there are so many variants of desirable behaviour that everyone can pick out the one that suits him or her.

Since our society follows the principle of “more is always better”, which in my view has now been exposed as an error, a corresponding exaggeration of all measures is not only socially not condemnable, but in some places even desirable. If we were all to limit our sugar consumption to 5 kilos a year, not only a branch of industry would collapse.

In judging desirable behaviour, I am – as almost always – with the ancients. For Plato, the basis of action was “sophrosyne”.The word cannot even be properly translated into English, perhaps in a sense of “moderate balance”. This is because with sophrosyne, the good man was able to achieve a balance between courage, prudence and the joy of living. One could also say like my grandmother: Everything in moderation and you will become old happily.


How can you – if you are addicted to it – break away from gluttony?

If you have read this and are thinking: “Great, what exactly should I do with my sugar addiction or my sugar- or fat-induced overweight?

First of all, try to find out what your body wants to fight or replace with food. Sadness, love, appreciation? Or do you often have really shitty days or permanent stress that you only deal with by eating? Are you bored? Are you haunted by fears of all kinds that you can try to control with food?

These are the issues you have to start with. I know how hard it is to replace love or someone you have lost. But without understanding these triggers, any sugar cessation or weight loss attempt will usually be without long-term success – at least that is my personal experience and that of my clients. I – and numerous colleagues – are ready to help you with this.


And your own path, together with that of many others, is the best way out of the lack of moderation in which our society is threatening to sink.

But with self-indulgence we are already moving on to the next topic – but more about that next month.

Yours, Claudia