I’m really quite shocked at myself. Shocked I had the nerve to admit, last week, that food is my lifelong passion. But having loosed the monster, we may as well go whole hog (pun intended) and today’s two-in-one-much-too-long-article topic is one I’ve long considered but never dared broach: comfort eating vs gluttony.
Comfort Eating vs Gluttony
Take the humble Dorito, for example. It’s been one of my favorite comfort foods since childhood. The first bite is delicious. Comforting. It’s cheesy goodness promises that “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” in my little world.
The next bite is good, but not quite as good. The whiff of dissatisfaction kick-starts craving.
By the fourth bite you’re devouring the bag in great handfuls, tongue sore, fingers matted with that lovely cheesy flavoring, searching for what is promised and nearly delivered but not quite realized: satisfaction.
IMO, that’s when I’ve crossed the line from comfort eating to gluttony. But is it our fault!?!
Meh. Not entirely!
As children, we learned what made us feel happy. Television. Matchbox cars. Dollies. Swimming pools. Bicycles. Candy. Chocolate. Ice cream. Chips. According to Healthline, junk food triggers the release of dopamine, a happiness horomone, in the brain.
As adults, in times of stress it’s logical to seek out what made us feel good in the past or as I like to say, “When in distress, eat.”
The problem is, speaking for myself, the flavors of my childhood comfort foods that triggered so much dopamine thirty years ago haven’t maintained their comfort levels into adulthood. Either the quality of the flavors have been diminished and/or I can’t taste as well. Probably both.
This is where my comfort eating can so easily segue into gluttony as I desperately seek the dopamine “high” I experienced in childhood by consuming larger quantities in the hopes that the next mouthful will actually satisfy.
Same Dorito flavor I fell in love with as a kid: disappointing results leading to larger and larger consumption.
Finally when I realize that disappointment, weight gain and disgust in myself will be the only result, I’m left in a quandary. Throw away the rest of the bag of expensive, disappointing comfort junk food or just eat it all to “get rid of it”? I usually choose the latter option and loath myself even more. And that is, indeed, gluttony.
We all have vices: jealousy and gluttony are mine.
But there’s another twist in the mix: MSG.
I once heard that, during World War II, the Japanese Army rations were composed of canned horse meat. Despite their hunger, the flavor was so unpalatable that the soldiers just couldn’t eat it. So the umami flavoring agent discovered in 1908, MSG, was added to their rations. And they couldn’t get enough of it. The American Army who happened upon Japanese rations and tasted them also found them delicious.
I wasn’t able to verify the “horse meat” portion of that story anywhere online, but even if it’s merely urban myth, it illustrates my point perfectly: You can’t get enough of foods containing MSG. It’s addictive. It’s my addiction. One MSG-riddled chip hits my tongue and I’m gone. Hopelessly, desperately, manically eating, eating, eating.
MSG-enhanced flavors hint, but don’t satisfy leading to that flavor desperation. That’s what trips the gluttony trigger. Desperation…and after it: heart arrhythmia because I’m also allergic to MSG.
It’s an addiction not to the food itself, but to the MSG chemical.
But why do we crave flavor so much? Why is MSG necessary? Why was the global junk food industry worth $570 billion in 2015???
Our food sucks. That’s why. It’s not satisfying our natural need for flavor and nutrition because it can’t. It’s genetically modified, riddled with pesticides and grown in over-used soil sapped of nutrients. If you walk into any corn field, and I have, there are zero weeds. None! That’s just not natural!
Worse still, much of our foods are over-processed and full of fillers, artificial colors, artificial flavoring and high fructose corn syrup. It’s “food” in name only.
Even fresh vegetables, like those pink tennis balls masquerading as tomatoes in the supermarket, are a travesty. No flavor, no nutrition. “Tomato” in name only. So it’s no wonder that we Americans can’t cram enough junk food into our mouths. We, poor dears, are craving flavor and nutrition. We may obese but were also malnourished.
It’s not our fault!
M. F. K. Fisher
For an insight into gluttony I turn to one of my new favorite food authors, M. F. K. Fisher (1908-1992). In her book An Alphabet for Gourmets, she writes about “Gluttony” under the letter “G” (obviously!):
I cannot believe that there exists a single coherent human being who will not confess, at least to himself, that once or twice he has stuffed himself to the bursting point, on anything from quail financière to flapjacks, for no other reason than the beastlike satisfaction of his belly…if only to determine what his own private limitations are, and where, for himself alone, gourmandism ends and gluttony begins.
Well, that’s comforting! Unfortunately, “gourmandism” and “gluttony” actually mean pretty much the same thing. Substitute the word “foodie” for “gourmandism” and we catch her drift.
As our emotional distress decreases and we distance ourselves further and further from narcissists, the emotional need to over-eat for comfort naturally dissipates. It did for me…and I used to comfort eat junk food like crazy in my twenties.
M. F. K. goes on to say…
Diamond Jim Brady, for instance, is more often than not called “the great glutton in American history,” and so on, simply because he had a really enormous capacity for food. To my mind he was not gluttonous but rather monstrous, in that his stomach was about six times normal size. That he ate at least six times as much as a normal man did not make him a glutton. Instead, he was Gargantuan, in the classical sense. His taste was keen and sure to the time of his death, and that he ate nine portions of sole Marguéry…does not mean that he gorged himself on it but simply that he had room for it.
That’s an important distinction to make. Some of the largest people eat the smallest portions and are satisfied and some of the smallest people must eat the largest portions to feel satisfied. Size is not necessarily proof of gluttony or even of eating large portions!
In my family, I ate the smallest portions and was full. But being pressed and questioned about my intake, I accepted 2nd and 3rd portions just to keep the peace.
Conversely, I once saw my 100-pound-soaking-wet friend put half a stick of butter on her mashed potatoes and then proceed to disparage “fat people” while she ate it. While I admire her culinary joie de vivre, her premise was quite wrong!
M. F. K. herself admits, “Perhaps the nearest I come to gluttony is with wine. As often as possible, when a really beautiful bottle is before me, I drink all I can of it, even when I know that I have had more than I want physically. That is gluttonous.”
Confession is good for the soul. 🙂
So what’s the solution to gluttony? One word: satisfaction.
We’ve lost sight of satisfaction but the French…! They know how to satisfy. I have it directly from a French friend of mine that “Dinner starts with a soup, “potage”, some meat and veggies, salad, cheese, fruit and sometimes a slice of cake.”
What is an American meal? Well, up here amongst Scandinavian Minnesotans it’s meat-n’-“puhtatuhs”. It ticks only the flavors of protein, starch and salt. Where’s the richness? Where’s the savoriness? Where’s the stinky cheese and the sweet fruit? Michael taught me what the French already knew: to be satisfied a meal should contain a little bit of every flavor profile: salty, savory, sweet, sour, bitter, umami. Then you will be utterly satisfied.
No fake ingredients. No hints, no suggestion, no MSG. Just the real McCoy.
For me, the solution to junk food is cheese. Proper stinky cheese. Did you know that cheese triggers the release of a different kind of insulin than carbs/sugars? It’s the perfect food for the insulin resistant.
For you satisfaction might be espresso or dark chocolate or…oh, I dunno! Oysters. Lobster. Something terribly rich and strongly flavorful. Something that delivers and doesn’t just tempt. Remember the rare meals in your life that were so good your eyes were wide with delight. That’s the goal! For me it was lobster bisque. Wow! I only had it once but never forgot it!
The problem of gluttony isn’t solved by either white-knuckled self-control nor shoveling-it-in. It’s in avoiding addictions like MSG, saving the money on partial-satisfaction and investing in quality foods that really, truly satisfy.
Now I’m off to buy a Camembert. I leave you with some of the cutest, funniest moment from Julia and Jacques. Bon appétit!
Photo by Sean MacEntee