There’s an old joke: Two elderly women are at a Catskills hotel. One of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is just terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know. And such small portions!”
At the heart of this joke lies a kernel of truth, revealing the conflicted relationship we have with the food we eat. As Jews, we use food to enhance and celebrate our special moments; food permeates the fabric of Jewish life and culture. Finding balance is often elusive, spiraling us toward extremes: over-indulgence and obesity at one end and restrictive eating disorders at the other. Many of us battle the desire to enjoy every enticing thing available and then suffer the guilt that accompanies succumbing to temptation. The food we eat may have a hechsher, but do our habits and behaviors reflect a kosher attitude toward food?
Mindfulness, the new buzzword for being aware of your surroundings and actions, can be applied to our eating and food choices. In a world of ever-increasing distractions, exercising practices of mindful eating has become a popular approach towards developing balanced eating habits. How does this impact behavior, and is there a Jewish approach to mindful eating?
Identifying the Pitfalls
At a kosher retreat a few years ago, large draped banquet tables lined the dining room. Elaborate spreads of salads, fish, meats and pastries filled the decorative tables as far as the eye could see. This was not a wedding. It was not even a meal, but rather the kiddush that preceded a four-course Shabbat lunch, which was followed by desserts in the twenty-four-hour tea room. About two hours later, dozens of people stood with hands extending empty plates, waiting for the sushi station to open. As overwhelmed sushi chefs opened the display, a crazed rush ensued. Watching the events unfold, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How did we as a people get here? Is this what God wants from us? Are we using the terms ‘l’shem mitzvah’ and ‘l’kavod Shabbat kodesh’ as excuses for eating mindlessly and excessively?”
“We’re taught so often to think before we act, before we speak—but not with food,” explains dietitian and nutritionist Bonnie Taub-Dix, the award-winning author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label To Table (2017; second edition) and creator of the web site BetterThanDieting.com. “Thinking about whether your stomach is full or not, thinking about what you are really in the mood for, thinking about how you are going to feel after you eat—all this is a part of mindfulness.”
Affluence and the current culinary renaissance (a.k.a. “foodie culture”) have affected our dietary norms, especially on Shabbat and holidays. “Shabbat and holidays are not usually about mindfulness, but rather about opulence and overabundance,” Taub-Dix observes. “Often there are so many choices from the same food group, and it is just unnecessary to have all of these offerings at one sitting. Pay attention to what your stomach says as opposed to what your eyes are saying because it looks so good.”
The food we eat may have a hechsher, but do our habits and behaviors reflect a kosher attitude toward food?
Achieving mindful eating during the week has its own challenges. For busy mothers, a proper lunch is often replaced with a granola bar eaten during carpool. A common reality for many women is the three-dinner syndrome: one with the kids, one alone and a third with their husbands. At the other end of the spectrum of unhealthy relationships with food confronting our community and society at large is restriction. Devorah Levinson, director of the Eating Disorders Division at Relief Resources, a mental health referral agency with offices in North America, Israel, and the UK, has seen a definite increase in the incidence of eating disorders within the Orthodox community and at increasingly younger ages. “I point the finger at the ‘thin ideal.’ After [WWII], the heavier girl was the healthy girl [because she could afford to eat]. The ideal girl now is very thin. The notion of beauty has changed tremendously. We are being duped into believing in something that is not healthy.” Raising awareness of what healthy portions look like and allowing ourselves enjoyment in moderation can help strike a balance for a generation struggling with a healthy body image. But if we ourselves are confused or misguided about our relationship to food, how can we model healthy eating for our children?
Lifting up the Sparks
“Mindfulness” and eating in a more spiritually aware state are not new concepts in Judaism. The Ramban in Parashat Kedoshim famously explains “kedoshim tehi’yu,” to be holy in all of our ways, as a general mitzvah to prevent one from becoming a “naval b’reshut haTorah,” one who acts in a disgusting way within the allowed parameters of the Torah. In other words: think. Be mindful of God in all of your actions, even if they are technically allowed. King Solomon advises against the unnecessary consumption of food, as he writes, “The righteous eat to satisfy their souls” (Proverbs 13:25). The Midrash applies this to Ruth, who shows by example that one should eat what one needs but no more—“And she ate, and she was satisfied, and she left over” (Ruth 2:14).
In Hilchot De’ot (4:2), Rambam advises one to eat until he is about three-quarters full. (Modern-day nutritionists also recommend stopping before completely full, as it takes the body twenty minutes to digest food and feel satiated.) Rambam also stated earlier in the chapter: “Never shall man partake food save when hungry . . .” (4:1).
If we ourselves are confused or misguided about our relationship with food, how can we model healthy eating for our children?
Hashem created the food we prepare to be more than just calories. He made it tasty, a source of pleasure and comfort. He did not do this to set us up for failure, but rather as an opportunity to appreciate and enjoy every nuance of what was given to us and to recognize Hashem as the Source of that blessing.
Eating with God consciousness is not so easy even for tzaddikim. The Zohar calls mealtime a time of war. Our physical and spiritual halves can be opposing forces within us; it takes focus, awareness and intention to turn an act of eating into a means of serving God. As such, many tzaddikim of previous generations restricted themselves during meals, ate deliberately, leaving food uneaten on the plate. Rabbeinu Yonah discusses chewing each bite slowly. The Ben Ish Chai recommends not reaching for the next bite until the previous one is completely swallowed. Sounds like mindful eating, doesn’t it?
In Chassidic thought, eating can be a vehicle for achieving deveikut with Hashem. One can elevate the holy sparks in the food not only by having the correct intentions by eating for one’s health and to engage in Divine service, but by recognizing and enjoying the Divinely given qualities—the taste, the texture, et cetera—inherent in the food.
The Other Side of the Story
If mindful eating is endorsed by clinical psychologists and nutritionists and is consistent with Torah principles, is it a panacea for all eating issues? Not quite. Mindful eating has its critics, too. One 2014 comprehensive review, published in the journal Eating Behaviors, examined how those with eating issues respond to mindfulness interventions. Psychologist Shawn Katterman and his team concluded that mindfulness training effectively decreases binge eating and emotional eating in people who engage in these behaviors but is ineffective as a stand-alone intervention for significant or consistent weight loss. In addition, practicing mindful eating may be a tool and asset towards better health and diet, but it should not be misconstrued as a cure for eating disorders or illness stemming from chemical imbalances. In such cases, medical and mental health professionals should be sought for treatment.
Naomi Ross is a cooking instructor and food writer. She teaches classes throughout the tri-state area and writes articles connecting good cooking and Jewish inspiration. Visit her website www.koshercookingconcepts.com.
Practical Pathways Back to the Table
Having a treat every so often in moderation is not wrong and can even be eaten mindfully. But how do we deal with everyday life choices and make lasting changes in our outlook and habits?
1. Ask the question: Am I hungry? Do I really want to eat this?
“Often, people are not eating because they are hungry—they may be eating for comfort or escape,” explains Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Epstein, a clinical psychologist who blends cognitive behavioral therapy with mindfulness. Dr. Epstein works in private practice in Jerusalem and is the author of the forthcoming book Living in the Presence: A Jewish Mindfulness Guide for Everyday Life (Jerusalem, expected January 2019). “[Being mindful] is to notice the impulses or urges and where they are coming from . . . how to best accept them without acting on them impulsively. . . . It’s never about needing a whole bag of chips.”
2. Berachot: a built-in vehicle for developing appreciation
To mumble a few words without thought is to defeat the purpose of making a blessing: to develop a sense of appreciation. “When making a berachah, we are supposed to focus on what we are eating, look at the food, appreciate the food, recognize and appreciate Hashem’s role in the food,” says nutritionist Beth Warren, author of Secrets of a Kosher Girl. Sitting down and pausing as you make a blessing creates the space to think about what you are eating.
3. Slow Down
Eat and chew more slowly to savor and appreciate your food.
4. Sit at a table
The Rambam in Mishneh Torah prohibits standing or walking while eating. This is both out of concern for digestion as well as for building respect for the act of eating. While many don’t have the luxury to sit down to a formal lunch in the middle of the day, trying to eat at a table rather than multitasking in a car will make eating a more conscious act.
5. Shabbat: a gift of being present
Shabbat is the gift that focuses us and brings us together as families. “Sharing a meal and stimulating conversation is an amazing opportunity for parents and children to learn about and practice mindfulness and being in the moment,” says Taub-Dix.
Warren’s advice: “There is a delicate balance between enjoying the spirit of Shabbat and ignoring the cues that you are full and stopping there. We should be making choices that we are comfortable with and don’t detract from the enjoyment of the day.”
6. Model the behavior you want your kids to follow
Healthy foods, portions and attitudes have to come from the top down in the home. Dr. Epstein acknowledges, “We have to practice what we preach [positively], never with negative comments. It’s never about fat or skinny, but rather about feeling good and healthy. Kids feel good when they make healthy choices.”
7. Cook real food (and get your family cooking, too)
To be involved in the whole process of cooking a dish—the amazing transformation of raw elements on your stovetop—is to appreciate the intimately unique role we possess as human beings. It gives us a chance to partner with the Creator to sustain ourselves while adding our own personal taste, touch and creativity. Learning about different ingredients leads to healthier choices. Taub-Dix says “Getting kids involved in cooking, shopping and meal prep is critically important to help develop appreciation for . . . food you like, and that you like yourself after you eat it.”