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Dieting and Judaism: not a slimming mix

By ReligionJanuary, 2020January 18th, 20249 min read

Eat less, exercise more. That’s how my sister-in-law, the doctor, describes dieting, at its essence. But when you add Jewish (food) culture into the mix, any attempt at dieting suddenly becomes very complex.

January is when everyone signs up for diet programs and gym memberships. Between new year resolutions and the excesses of the season, enthusiasm for change is at a maximum. I was fortunate enough to start at a different time of year, and with very different motivations.

Having been blessed, in my younger years, with a fast metabolism, I subsisted for many years on large quantities of meat and potatoes (“potatoes are a vegetable, Mum”) and got away with it. This was just as well, because my late father, a Holocaust survivor, as well as my mother, who fled to Uzbekistan during the war and had to cope with famine, ingrained in me from a very young age the importance of a piece of bread, as well as the rule that we never … ever, throw food out.

“The chicken from Shabbat would last until Wednesday”, my mother would say as she regularly recounted her experience as a young married balabosta. Eastern-European Jewish “delicacies” like gribbeness (fried chicken skins), pupicklach (belly-buttons), and galleh/p’tcha (calves-feet jelly) are reflective of the imperative to ensure every single part of any kosher creature is used for consumption and is not discarded.

As I grew a little older and gained a few kilograms, it became clear that my metabolism wasn’t what it used to be, and watching what I ate started to become important. The mixed messages from my parents (“David, please finish my schnitzel – we can’t throw it out” and “David, your shirt is a bit tight and I don’t think it shrank in the laundry”) started to create a dissonance inside me.

Despite developing a modest bulge around the midriff, I was not considered “fat” by most definitions. However, after several friends in their 50s either died or suffered serious health issues, the need to trim down continued to linger in the back of my mind (as well as in other parts of me).

After several casual encounters with fad diets that either made me miserable, didn’t result in any weight loss, or both, I finally decided to go visit a local doctor/weight loss specialist – Dr Leon – who is also a personal friend. We had eaten Shabbat meals together on many occasions, and we also shared a love of single malt whisky. For Jews, even a simple case of seeing a doctor has to be complicated, right?

Dr Leon’s diet is straightforward: eat less of what’s not good for you (fats, sugars, bad carbs), don’t graze, and develop an understanding of how the body works and how certain foods impact on your metabolism. Then learn how to eat and how to combine food groups in a healthy way. Oh, and of course, get a reasonable daily dose of exercise (but there is no need to become a CrossFit freak as losing weight is mostly a function of diet rather than exercise).

It took less than a week of dieting to hit the first hurdle: Shabbat. I was devastated to learn that many of my favourite Shabbat foods – challah, kugel, cholent, and almost everything traditionally served at a Shabbat morning kiddush – are very bad for you. It turns out that a four-course meal that lasts several hours is also not consistent with eating in moderation. Hardly surprising, but still not what I wanted to hear.

Changing my daily eating habits was far easier than the weekly ones. Sitting around after shul at the Shabbat kiddush with a near-empty plate, and a platter of my favourite fried fish and a kichel in front of me screaming “eat me!”, is harder than walking past McDonalds on Yom Kippur. For Jews, eating is social, and social interaction means food.

My weekly appointment with Dr Leon would start with the mandatory weigh-in, and then a ‘lesson’ about physiology or nutrition. My hunger for knowledge offset my physical hunger for food; and this became a journey of learning more about how my body works, and understanding that what we eat and how we eat it affects our weight.

Slowing down the rate we consume food is an important factor, but when Dr Leon suggested I don’t finish all the food on my plate if I’m already satiated, I pushed back. For years, my parents indoctrinated me with the importance of never throwing out food. In our home, our children always want fresh food for dinner, so I end up eating the leftovers because I can’t stand the thought of throwing them out. We support food rescue charities that collect all the leftovers from stores and caterers and distribute them. And now, some doctor tells me we live in an age of plenty and it’s OK to throw food out?! And what about ‘bal tashchis’ (the Torah prohibition against waste)?

After a modest theological struggle, I reached a resolution: put less food on my plate to start with, place the food judiciously to make the plate look fuller than it is, and make sure someone else throws out food when I’m not looking.

Dr Leon had tactics for every scenario: from Chagim (my mother’s Rosh Hashanah tzimmess and knaidel was never a huge favourite anyway) to vacations and everything else in between. He wanted me to learn to abhor foods that were bad for me, but I didn’t. My approach instead was to “raise the bar”.

Despite knowing what foods were not good for me, I chose to eat them anyway, but only if they were “worth it”. Favourites like butter croissants and chocolate became less frequent indulgences, and anything but “the best” were no longer on my list. The standard fare chocolate cake and cookies in our house were off the list, but my friend’s chocolate babka was that good, I could never give it up.

Two months and some ten kilograms lighter, we were in a good place. I had reached my goal, and the discussions now turned to maintenance – adjusting my eating habits so keep a steady weight rather than lose, and regaining the weight was not acceptable. Dr Leon had two different options, and he told me which he thought I would choose.

Option #1 was to moderately increase the volume of food and perhaps introduce minor indulgences back into my daily diet – occasionally. Option #2 was to continue my usual weekday eating patterns, and to save the special foods for Shabbat. While the Talmud never specifically debated a question like this, my decision was certainly informed by a theological approach.

Eating on Shabbat is special in so many ways. The Talmud states that we should think about the approaching Shabbat all during the week, even saving special foods for that day rather than consuming them immediately. Our tradition tells stories of impoverished pious people who would barely eat during the week to ensure they were able to honour the Shabbat with the finest food. Kabbalah teaches that the food consumed on Shabbat elevates us spiritually in ways far superior than during the week, to the extent that even a degree of gluttony on Shabbat is acceptable.

Theology therefore directs me to continue to eat like I’m on a diet during the week, and go back to eating cholent and kugel – albeit in moderation – on Shabbat. That is what Dr Leon thought I would choose.

But new habits die hard, and the compliments from friends about my weight loss were a very strong motivator to remain on this path. Based on what I had learned, I didn’t think oscillating through a weekly cycle of ups and downs would be very healthy. Instead, I drew on the views of Maimonides, who states that we should always strive for the middle path of moderation. That means a little extra on weekdays, and also a little extra on Shabbat. Perhaps the best of both worlds?

When I embarked on dieting (and this was the first time in my life), I didn’t think I would be quite so drawn in to the journey. To be sure, there is a strong discipline of “eat less; exercise more”, but there is so much more than that. The deeper understanding of food, physiology, mindset, Judaism and myself have been quite transformative.

Starting off a new healthier lifestyle is always more difficult than making the resolution to do so.

David talks about the Jewish-specific challenges of dieting – the social aspects of eating at Shabbat and Jewish Holidays, the mixed messages we get from Jewish parents, and how difficult it is to give up foods that you love and are bad for you.

This was also posted at [The Times of Israel].

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