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Street Philosopher

Bear-Faced in Bombay

Seán Moran philosophically ponders plumptiousness.

The fussy bear in my photograph will only attack once it has confirmed you’re worth eating, it seems. If I stepped onto the weighing machine, I would surely pass his test: at the moment I’m trying to lose the ‘covid stone’ that many of us put on during lockdown. (A stone is an archaic measure of weight equal to fourteen imperial pounds, or just over six kilos.) Unlike the fabled ‘philosopher’s stone’ that transmuted base metal into gold, the covid stone was caused by our bodies transmuting weeks of overeating and underactivity into flab.

Bear-Faced in Bombay
Photos © Seán Moran 2020

This is only the latest rise in a long-term global trend: more and more of the human race are becoming overweight or obese. The number of people living with obesity has tripled over the last forty years, according to the World Economic Forum in 2018. It has been largely a first-world problem until now, with almost two-thirds of the planet’s obese folks living in developed countries such as the USA and the UK, but it’s inching up the problem scale in the rest of the world too.

For most of history, this global weight gain would have been a cause for celebration. Until around the twentieth century, only the rich could afford to eat enough to be fat, so obesity was a signifier of prosperity. In fact, the stylish gentleman’s tradition of leaving the last button on a waistcoat undone started with Britain’s King Edward VII (1841-1910), who adopted the practice to accommodate his expanding royal frontage.

This connection between portliness, wealth and power remains strong in many developing countries, such as India, where I took this photograph. Elsewhere, an intriguing piece of research by Pavlo Blavatsky in the journal Economics of Transition and Institutional Change (2020) puts flesh on the image of ‘fat cat’ politicians. The study’s title says it all: ‘Obesity of Politicians and Corruption in Post-Soviet Countries’.

But whether ill-gotten or legitimately acquired, wealth’s enabling of increased body weight is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it avoids the perils of not having enough to eat; but on the other hand it carries its own deadly risks.

I won’t list the alarming diseases associated with obesity. Reading it is so dispiriting that you and I might be tempted to reach for the biscuit tin/cookie jar to find a bit of comfort. Some bariatricians (from the Ancient Greek báros – weight) have diagnosed a public health crisis, and describe the worldwide rise in obesity as a pandemic (Gk. pándÄ“mos – all the people). But what would the Ancient Greeks make of this? I’m not certain that their philosophers’ nutritional advice would be helpful today. Pythagoras, for instance, forbade his followers from eating beans. What’s more, there is an emerging consensus among present-day specialists that obesity is not straightforwardly caused by a shortage of willpower, but is a highly complex condition. Contrast this with Aristotle’s description of gluttony as a ‘vice’. According to Aristotle, the glutton lacks the virtue of temperance. Temperance is the disposition to respond correctly to the natural bodily appetites for food, drink, and sex (Aristotle believes that these three appetites have in common the pleasures of touch). The temperate individual desires food of the right type, in the right way, at the right time, in the right amount, and for the right reasons. But intemperate people miss the mark, and either desire food excessively or (more rarely) deficiently.

Aristotle is not too hard on the over-eater. Although he views gluttony as an ethical failure rather than a medical condition, he grants that it’s not easy to be virtuous, since there is only one way to hit the target but many ways to miss it. And he recognises that the target (telos in Greek, from which we get teleology) varies between individuals, so that what would be far too much food for the average person might be just right for Milo the Wrestler. (Milo’s rigorous training regime for the ancient Olympics reputedly involved him carrying a new-born calf on his shoulders every day until it grew into a full-sized ox.) Nevertheless, Aristotle does see gluttony as a character defect, and says that intemperate people are ‘bovine’ – ‘like grazing cattle’ (Nicomachean Ethics, 1095b21). But name-calling’s usually counterproductive.

The Greeks did, however, provide some significant insights into human flourishing. Plato thought that too much emphasis on satisfying bodily desires, such as over-eating, diverted our attention from what he saw as really important: the life of the mind. Aristotle, a former student of Plato’s, also valued the contemplative life; but he recognised that enjoying ordinary human activities in the company of our friends is part of the Good Life, too. To flourish, we should live in accordance with virtues such as temperance, in order to try to achieve a happy medium in our behaviour (and not just in our shirt size). It isn’t that excesses of appetite are somehow evil, it is rather that they interfere with our flourishing.

The medieval view is a bit harsher, listing gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins. But at least the medievals don’t descend to ‘fat shaming’: corpulence itself is not frowned upon in this era. Rather, the focus is on the undesirable behavioural and mental effects of taking “an immoderate pleasure in eating and drinking”. According to Thomas Aquinas, these negative consequences are “unseemly joy, scurrility, uncleanness, loquaciousness, and dullness of mind” (Summa Theologiae, 2.ii.148). We may wonder about Thomas’s list, particularly when he glosses ‘unseemly joy’ as ‘random riotous joy’, which sounds good to me. But, in his view, such things can distract us from our religious duties and our responsibilities to our fellow human beings. In short, the hazards of gluttony are spiritual rather than physical, and it is over-enjoying, not over-eating, that’s the problem.

I refuse the medieval label ‘glutton’, and even have an excuse for putting on weight – as have all people of Irish descent, in Ireland, or in the USA, the UK, Australia, and the rest of the diaspora. The theory is that we have inherited a ‘thrifty gene’ that enabled our ancestors to survive the Irish famine of 1845-1849. Their bodies were ‘thrifty’ in the sense that they were very food-efficient, both in using the energy from the limited food available, and in laying down fat as an insurance against shortages. Andrew Prentice of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine points out that this gene is now a liability in our time of abundance: “It is likely that victims of the Irish famine who survived the hunger ships helped to create founder populations in North America that were selected for thriftiness – and hence may be particularly prone to obesity” (Symposium of the Nutrition Society, 2004).

Irrespective of our genetic endowments, the lockdown provided further incentives for weight gain. The unsettling combination of boredom and anxiety led to the widespread overeating of comfort foods. Not only did it change our relationship with food, it altered our interactions with others and with the outside environment: we stayed at home, and took less exercise. All of this is the exact opposite of the weight loss mantra ‘‘move more, eat less’’. It also contravenes my cardiac nurse’s favourite aphorisms: ‘‘Beware your chair’’ and ‘‘Sitting is the new smoking’’ – redolent of medieval warnings against the deadly sin of sloth.

These formulae may be useful reminders, but they oversimplify a complex situation. Our weight is not just governed by our relationship with exercise and food. Our interactions with other people and with our external environment are important too. And, remarkably, it appears that there’s another significant actor in this web of relationships: our internal bacteria. Living in our guts is a complex microbial ecosystem. There’s approximately 1kg of bacteria in the average adult (about the same weight as the brain; indeed some medical scientists regard the colony as another organ). Also floating around our bodies are viruses, fungi, protozoa and ‘dark sequences’ – mysterious combinations of nucleic acids that can’t be assigned to any of the known groups of microbes (Francis et al., Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2015). Much effort is being made to understand how all of these interact with the brain, but it is already clear that our internal ecosystems produce a multitude of neuroactive compounds. This means that our gut microbiota are not only involved in our nutritional thriftiness, they’re affecting our behaviour. This casts doubt on our self-concept as autonomous individuals with the free will to do as we please – to decline that second piece of cake; to go for a brisk walk rather than open another can of beer… Perhaps the microbiota are making those decisions for us? That probably goes too far; but it is yet another reason to cut everyone a bit of slack, as well as loosen our own belts. Putting on weight is not a sign of moral degeneracy or weak will – in ourselves, or in others.

So what can we do to lose the covid stone? Aristotelian moderation seems a good place to start: a balanced diet and moderate exercise. (Ox-carrying is not required.) We might also copy the medieval monkish obsession with eating only at regulated times – so avoiding Aristotle’s criticism of ‘bovine grazing’. And the latest research shows that lack of diversity in the microbiome may be a factor in obesity. More fibre in our diets can help remedy this, so we should ignore Pythagoras’s prohibition of bean consumption. And if none of that works, we can always claim that “The leprechauns made me do it!”

The model bear in my photograph poses no danger to anyone; but in the wildernesses of the United States we really could end up on the menu of a hungry Ursus americanus. If there’s plenty of meat on our bones, this makes us doubly tempting: not only nutritious, but also easy to catch. Fortunately, the US National Park Service has some sound advice about escaping from bears, including the tip: “Do NOT push down a slower friend (even if you think the friendship has run its course).”

© Dr Seán Moran 2020

Seán Moran teaches postgraduate students in Ireland, and is professor of philosophy at a university in the Punjab. Because his doctorate is in philosophy and not medicine, his dietary tips should be taken with a pinch of salt (or perhaps not: this can raise one’s blood pressure).

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