Halloween begins our annual end-of-the-year overindulgence marathon, which runs from trick-or-treating to the Thanksgiving table and the string of Christmas parties, all the way up to our New Year’s resolutions. From pumpkin spice muffins to fun-size candy bars, there’s always a yummy snack within reach, and it’s hard to say no.
It’s in our nature: Humans are flavor-seeking creatures, so we crave what tastes good. For much of history, this was a win-win. We went after food that tasted good because in nature, that was the food with the most nutritional content.
But on today’s grocery store shelves, and even in the produce displays, that’s not necessarily the case anymore. We’ve lost our bodies’ “nutritional wisdom,” and as a result we’re grasping at the latest diet fads and seeking out solutions to new health problems, writes Mark Schatzker, journalist and author of The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor.
Our bodies are programmed to crave food that meets our nutritional needs. Schatzker marshals evidence of goats, calves, and even human babies who choose the naturally occurring foods that keep them in optimal health. Even during illness, these instincts are strong: for example, a baby with rickets who drank cod liver oil—a jackpot for vitamin D—while ill, but wouldn’t touch a drop after he recovered. These animals and children weren’t examining their meals for essential vitamins and minerals. They simply ate what tasted good, and it turned out to be good for them, too.
The food industry, though, has distorted the relationship between flavor and the nutrients our bodies were designed to detect. Industrial agriculture, in many cases, diluted flavor and nutrients for the sake of yield. Schatzker describes how chicken now tastes like “teddy bear stuffing,” tomatoes have lost their “tomatoey-ness,” and, according to one study, fruits and vegetables have on average 15 percent less ascorbic acid and 20 percent less vitamin D than they did in 1950. Producers make up for the loss of flavor by dousing food with sugar, salt, fat, and “natural and artificial flavorings.” The result? Food tastes good, devilishly good, but is all too often lacking in what our bodies need. We eat—and eat and eat—but are seldom truly nourished.
This endless appetite (and the resulting health effects) leads us to feel guilty—either earnestly or ironically—for how much we love to eat. But the problem is not in our cravings, it’s in the foods themselves. If we buy the premise of The Dorito Effect, we see that our appetites were originally designed to nudge us toward what is good. “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” David urges in Psalm 34.
We Protestants tend to hold a puritanical distrust of bodily desire to some degree, and that includes our love of food. You can see a conflation of eating well with sin just through the terms we use to talk about it: Food that is particularly rich is labeled as “decadent,” which the dictionary defines as “reflecting a state of moral or cultural decline.” Cupcakes are “sinfully delicious.” We devour “death by chocolate” trifles. We are “being bad” if we help ourselves to another plate of potpie and “being good” if we stick to the salad.
Even Halloween, with its bizarre mashup of traditions, reflects this association. The holiday has become a parade of death and decay (think zombies, Frankensteins, and mutilated bodies) alongside an excuse to indulge wayward appetites (think candy overload and sexy costumes). In our internalized connection between bodily cravings with judgment and death, we imply giving into fleshly desire is a recipe for moral failure.
There’s a good reason behind this fear. From the time Eve bit into the apple, our misguided desires have led us into treacherous territory, full of rebellion, hurt, and alienation from God. Best to play it safe and put out the fire of our desires. But, as Jen Pollock Michel writes in Teach Us to Want, desire is what makes us human. Desire, ordered rightly, impels us forward into God’s goodness and kingdom.
Could bodily desire be part of that goodness?
When Christians talk about God transforming and redeeming, we mostly refer to our hearts and minds. God will renew our thoughts, transform our wills, save our souls, and heal our emotional wounds. We often stop short at the idea of physical transformation and redemption.
In Simply Good News, N. T. Wright laments this narrowed vision of God’s redemptive work. The point of Jesus coming and dying, he says, is “the restoration and transformation of all creation.” The resurrection, on which we bank our hope, is all about bodies. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer with Jesus, we don’t pray for God’s kingdom to come just in our souls. We pray for his kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. Our neighborhoods, food systems, gardens, and bodies, as fragile and beautiful as they are, belong to this earth. I believe that God’s into restoring and transforming them too.
That doesn’t mean that our bodies will escape decay and death. But maybe, just as the desires of our hearts align more and more with God’s desires as we allow his kingdom to burst into our lives, so also the desires of our bodies are reoriented, restored to their original goodness.
This restorative work can’t happen if we ignore our bodies’ clamoring for food, sleep, and connection because we have more holy things to do. It also doesn’t help when we stuff down these longings with quick fixes such as junk food and casual sex. We have to learn to tune in to our bodies, discerning whether our cravings lead us toward or away from abundant life in God. Then we can present our bodies—and their unruly desires—as living sacrifices to God (Romans 12), risking the pain and pleasure of “living alive to longings and understanding that not all longings are meant to be fulfilled,” Tara Owens writes in Embracing the Body.
“Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat,” the silly children’s chant goes. Today, we are confused about whether good food is a trick, or a treat. As we allow God to redeem our bodily desires, as well as our food systems, may we regain the ability to choose wisely, nourish our bodies well, and taste, along with David, that the Lord is good.