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Your Body’s Keeper

Yael Schuster

Protecting your health is not just a lifestyle option, but a mitzvah. And that idea hasn’t been lost on many health practitioners in their quest to synthesize timeless Torah principles with modern-day understanding of nutrition in helping to combat food abuse and getting people healthier. Because when a Jew eats to fortify the body for spiritual work, each meal becomes a seudas mitzvah

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

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PORTION CONTROL “The mahn came in premeasured portions, at set times. This was to teach us that eating is meant to have boundaries”—Rabbi Eli Glaser

W hen Rabbi Eli Glaser was a kiruv rabbi at Aish HaTorah in the 1990s, showing newcomers to Yiddishkeit the beauty of living a life with boundaries and restraint, his dynamic classes often left his students puzzled: How could this paragon of self-control, who made a cogent argument for trading in one’s yetzer hara for Hashem’s will, weigh 300 pounds?

“I’d been trying to lose weight for years, but nothing worked,” Rabbi Glaser shares, remembering how he would always cave in to his cravings. “Finally I reached the pit of despair, realizing my willpower would never stand a chance against food. I’d hit a brick wall.” But that wall turned out to be a door, and the only way through it was to completely overhaul his relationship with food.

Rabbi Glaser says the transformation came with the realization that nothing he could do on his own would work, that he needed a total revamping of his attitude and behavior toward eating. And so he began treating his relationship with food as both a physiological and emotional addiction. By harnessing his spiritual reserves and turning to Torah sources, he learned to treat food for what it was — fuel for a healthy body, and not a substance that made the elusive promise of fulfillment but never really delivered.

“To have a healthy relationship with anything, you have to understand its purpose. The Torah defines the function of food as fuel for health and vitality. In Hashem’s love for us, He makes the process of nourishment an enjoyable experience. But the gezunt is primary, and the geshmak is secondary. People often reverse that order, which is abusing the function of food,” Rabbi Glaser explains.


Fences Around Food

Protecting one’s health — which encompasses diet, exercise, and other sound choices — is not just a lifestyle option, but a mitzvah. And that idea hasn’t been lost on many health practitioners in their quest to synthesize timeless Torah principles with modern-day understanding of nutrition in helping to combat food abuse and getting people healthier.

Rabbi Eli Glaser: “…the gezunt is primary, and the geshmak is secondary. People often reverse that order, which is abusing the function of food”

While the Torah’s viewpoint on diet and health has been accessible through seforim throughout the centuries, over the past number of years the frum consumer has been introduced to an assortment of eating plans that consolidate the Torah’s wisdom on health into formalized, user-friendly programs.

One of those programs is Soveya, founded by Rabbi Glaser and his wife Zakah, after they figured out how to successfully manage their own weight (between the two of them, they lost 250 pounds). Their approach is based on Torah principles for personal growth and healthy eating, as well as tools adapted from recovery programs for compulsive behaviors.

“The Sages ask us to make the connection between proper eating and our spiritual essence,” Rabbi Glaser says. “I had become a baal teshuvah some years before, and I tapped into that same teshuvah process again. Both situations required me to change my lifestyle so that it was consistent with what I knew to be true.” 

Rabbi Glaser is a certified nutrition and wellness consultant and weight-management specialist in Lakewood, New Jersey. In his practice, he designs individualized meal plans for clients with weighed portion sizes, minimizing sugar, added sweeteners, and refined carbohydrates. But the broader aim is to teach people a brand-new approach toward eating, which he culls from an array of Torah sources; he sometimes reads through these texts together with his clients. One of those sources is 16th-century mekubal the Shelah Hakadosh, who writes that a Jew should eat in order to fortify the body to prepare it for spiritual avodah. If we do this, says the Shlah, each meal becomes a seudas mitzvah d’Oraisa, fulfilling the Torah command of v’nishmartem meod l’nafshoseichem. Looking at it this way, a healthy weekday meal at the kitchen table can be even more elevated than that of a siyum or wedding, which are seudos mitzvah d’Rabbanan. 

“We teach people to embrace boundaries,” says Rabbi Glaser. “To have the ability to process a feeling, such as desire for a food, but not feeling compelled to give in to it, is a critical element of emotional maturity, and is what allows one person to successfully control his eating when so many others can’t. On a spiritual level the impact is huge as well, as people learn to free themselves from their taavos.”

Yosef Hilsenrad of Atlanta, a self-titled mezonos guy, says he never touched a vegetable. “I spent my life scrounging around for food. I’d stuff myself and be hungry two hours later. I now know it’s because the processed carbohydrates I was living on — things like donuts and pasta — broke down quickly into sugar, causing my blood sugar levels to spike and then crash, perpetuating a vicious, out-of-control hunger cycle.” 

Three years ago, when Yosef was 42, he came across a webinar by Rabbi Glaser, and “the way the webinar melded Torah hashkafah with practical nutritional advice hooked me in.” Rabbi Glaser talked about ‘the disease of tomorrow,’ the paralyzing fear of not being able to carry through with something which prevents us from making a change today. “I learned about making one small change, this minute, and not to even think about how I’d handle Shabbos,” Yosef says. “I had learned this idea for years in mussar seforim, but never actually tried it in a practical way.” Rabbi Glaser created a personalized plan for Yosef, which including measuring his food and completely eliminating sugar. “The clear guidelines on my personalized plan, such as measuring my food and completely eliminating sugar, are what make it possible for me to sustain it.” 

Debbie Finkel, 62, and her husband, from Jerusalem, adopted Rabbi Glaser’s approach eight years ago, and have kept off a combined 150 pounds. “This is the best eating plan I’ve ever been on, because it’s based on Torah principles, which is very motivating,” Debbie says. “Bringing Hashem into my life through my diet has led me to bring Him into other aspects of my daily life as well. And by viewing food through the Torah’s lens, as a fuel rather than an end unto itself, I find I connect to the essence of Shabbos and Yom Tov on a deeper level, rather than focusing on the food.”

Rabbi Glaser says that the Torah teaches us this very point. “Commentaries explain that the purpose of the mahn was to reprogram our approach to eating,” he says. “The mahn came in pre-measured portions, at set times. This was to teach us that eating is meant to have boundaries, to elevate us from our animalistic drive of wanting instant gratification.”


Rambam Revival 

When South African-born David Zulberg was learning in a Jerusalem kollel, he considered his health condition pretty typical: 30 pounds overweight, sluggish-feeling, and living with a bad case of acid reflux. His doctor urged him to make lifestyle changes, but who had the motivation for that?  

And then he chanced upon some information that would eventually change his life — that the Rambam had a lot to say about health. A mild curiosity evolved into a seven-year megaproject that involved tracking down and studying the translations of all ten of the Rambam’s medical works, and then creating a user-friendly diet approach based on those principles that has helped thousands lose weight and keep it off.

Zulberg, today a popular media personality and certified health coach and fitness specialist, wrote three books on health (The Life Transforming Diet, The 5 Skinny Habits, and The Mind Body Synergy Diet) and designed his food plan around the three main health principles of the Rambam: food quantity, exercise, and food quality, in that order.

Regarding portion size: “Overeating is like poison to the body and it is the main cause of all illness… One should not eat until his stomach is full. Rather, [he should stop when] he is close to three-quarters satiated” (Rambam, Mishnah Torah, Hilchos Deios). 

The Rambam says that overeating puts a strain on the digestive system that with time will lead to various illnesses. Based on recent studies, the Mayo Clinic, American Obesity Association, and American Diabetes Association have all urged reducing food quantity for improved health.

Regarding exercise: “Without exercise, a good diet alone is not sufficient, and eventually medical treatment will be needed” (Rambam, Medical Aphorisms). “Exercise repels the damage done by most of man’s bad habits” (Rambam, Regimen of Health).

The Rambam defines exercise as physical activity that raises the rate of respiration. The best time to exercise, he says, is at the beginning of the day, before a person eats; exercising after a meal impairs digestion and can lead to illness.

Regarding food quality: “Most illnesses are caused by unhealthy foods” (Rambam, Hilchos Deios).

Remarkably, the most current knowledge of various foods’ effects on health, brought to light in recent years, was spelled out by the Rambam during the Middle Ages. For example, writes the Rambam, “Foods to be limited include flour that has been sifted until no bran remains (white flour). Fatty food should be avoided… it cleaves to the organs. The best type of cheese is that which is made from milk whose fat has been removed. Of the different types of meat, one should choose fowl… other harmful products include fried pastries….”

To reduce food quantity, and in line with the Rambam’s belief that a person should only eat two main meals a day, one meal a day on the Life Transforming Diet consists of either just fruit, or just vegetables (this wouldn’t count as a meal according to the Rambam, but gives one a way to eat the three “meals” a day to which our society is accustomed).  

The Rambam suggests eating a single dish at a meal. Digesting various foods at the same time, he maintains, has a deleterious effect on digestion and can lead to illness (there are conflicting viewpoints on this point among nutritionists today). In addition, every food eaten stimulates the appetite separately. When only a single food is eaten, according to the Rambam, the appetite is satiated earlier, and this will prevent overeating. Indeed, multiple published studies have substantiated the Rambam’s claim, showing that food consumption increases when there is more variety at a meal, and that increased food variety is associated with increased body weight. One such study published in Health Psychology in 2008 showed that children presented with a variety of foods at a meal ate 42 percent more than those presented with a single food.

Because of this, one of the two main meals a day on Zulberg’s plan is either primarily protein, or primarily carbohydrate, but the two are generally not combined. Vegetables can be eaten with either choice. The third meal of the day can include both starch and protein. Eating this way, according to Zulberg, will naturally reduce a person’s appetite, resulting in automatic weight loss. 

But food is only half the equation — the other half is exercise. According to Zulberg, cardiovascular and strengthening exercises should be done five times a week. He believes that those who follow his plan will benefit from the Rambam’s wisdom and gain the benefits of better health and a more energetic constitution.

The Rambam, who lived from 1135 to 1204, was not only one of the greatest Torah scholars in Jewish history, but was also known as the greatest medical expert of his time. While living in Egypt, he had a thriving private practice to which people flocked from great distances. By age 39, he served as royal physician in the court of Sultan Saladin, famed Muslim military leader who fought the Crusaders and later became ruler of Egypt. The Rambam authored ten major medical works in Arabic, which combined his extensive knowledge of the ancient works of Greek physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen with the most current medical knowledge of his own time. An extensive amount of the Rambam’s medical advice proves to be remarkably current, some even at the vanguard of health conversation today (for example, the Rambam suggests eating only free-range cattle).

In addition to his medical tomes, some of the Rambam’s halachic works, such as Hilchos Deios in the Mishnah Torah, are laden with medical directives, although that doesn’t necessarily give them halachic weight. “The Maharshal in Chullin says that it’s assur to cite medical advice from the Gemara, lest it not work and will besmirch the good names of those quoted,” says Rabbi Moshe Plutchok, rav of Congregation Shaarei Torah in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, an eminent talmid chacham with a broad base of historical knowledge. “The Rambam heeded this, and never quoted from the Talmud in his medical works. The general consensus among poskim is that these medical directives are not halachically binding.”

Still, the main health principles of the Rambam are substantiated with current research and are universally agreed upon today, says Zulberg.

Mrs. H., 50, is a life coach in Israel. Five years ago, in a shiur she was giving to a group of women, she shared Rav Shimshon Pincus’s approach to teshuvah. “He advises you to choose one thing that puts a mechitzah, a separation, between you and Hashem, and work that thing through until you’re a different person,” she says. “I asked myself what annoyed me most about my own avodas Hashem, and the embarrassing answer was that I ate like an animal. Eating like a Yid was the teshuvah I needed. I was determined, and lost close to 50 pounds.

“Then a friend bought me The Life Transforming Diet, and without realizing it, I had pretty much been following Zulberg’s plan, although here it was packaged in a systematic, logical, easy-to-use way. Beforehand, I was a sluggish couch potato. Today, I have a ton of energy, and I feel like I’m giving Hashem the best of myself because my body’s functioning so well. I can honestly say that I have zero cravings for unhealthy food — the yetzer hara has given up on me.”

Atara Weisberger owns The Tribe Athletics and Fitness, a boutique fitness studio for women in Nutley, New Jersey. “I came across Zulberg’s book a while back, and decided to explore it with two clients,” says Mrs. Weisberger, who has over 30 years’ experience in the fitness and wellness field. “They both wanted diets that didn’t count calories and weren’t ultra-restrictive, and this plan fit that bill. They lost weight, but neither was able to sustain the diet. One found it took too much food planning, and the other felt hungry on it, perhaps because the diet gives leeway to incorporate more fruit and carbohydrates than some people need. You can theoretically follow the guidelines, and choose fruit for breakfast and starch for lunch, with no protein until supper. This will likely leave you feeling hungry, as it did my client. That’s because protein is slow to digest, and so it keeps you feeling full for longer. Second, the high sugar content in the starch and fruit leads to a spike in blood sugar levels, followed by a crash, which makes you feel hungry, and in some sensitive people, can even lead to symptoms of hypoglycemia, such as feeling shaky and dizzy. If the diet is used wisely, though, it can work well as a maintainable plan. Zulberg, for his part, just outlines the principles, while one’s personal food choices are out of his purview.”


All Systems Go 

Zulberg has lots of company from other quarters in promoting the Rambam’s time-enduring health program. Another is the well-known Rabbi Yechezkel Ishayek, whose widely popular Chaim Bri’im K’halachah, the English-language version of which is called To Your Health — the Torah Way to a Healthy Life in Modern Times has been translated into six languages. Rabbi Ishayek served as Rav Shach’s caretaker for many years, during which time he learned extensively about medical issues. In 2000 he launched Israel’s biggest national anti-smoking campaign, enlisting the endorsements of the gedolei hador, which was followed by a small pamphlet on preventive medicine. He never intended to write a book, but over the years, that pamphlet was expanded, and morphed into this best-selling volume.

Based on the Rambam and other sources in Chazal, Rabbi Ishayek asserts that good health, or lack of it, is largely determined by how well our digestive systems work. When digestion is efficient, more nutrients can be absorbed, fueling the body with what it needs so that all systems can operate optimally.

Aryeh B. of Beit Shemesh realized he had to take action to reverse the trend of his steady weight gain. He tried the South Beach Diet. He tried a point system. He became an exercise buff. But despite his efforts, both his weight and his motivation bounced up and down for years — until he came across Rabbi Ishayek’s book. He perceived that the wisdom it contained was true, eternal, and had the potential to change his life.

“About three years ago, I adopted many of the book’s recommendations,” Aryeh says. “I lost my excess weight, and for the first time ever, it stayed off. My wife is a fitness instructor who spends many hours a week working out, but still always struggled with her weight. She joined me in this, and for the first time, she saw dramatic weight loss as well.”

“Many people don’t realize that the way they eat greatly influences their ability to digest well,” Rabbi Ishayek explains. Chewing food until it’s pulp-like and eating smaller quantities are critical for digestion, and thus for overall health. “Digestion starts in the mouth, where the teeth break down the food mechanically, and saliva breaks it down chemically. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch tells us that swallowing food without chewing it places the burden of digestion on the stomach alone, but the stomach isn’t designed to crush and grind food. This impairs digestion, and fewer nutrients can be absorbed. Overeating has a similar effect. The fuller the stomach, the more difficult it is for the stomach muscles to contract as needed for digestion, and for the digestive juices to adequately break down the food to extract nutrients.”

Rabbi Ishayek stresses the importance of drinking adequate water (based on a person’s weight), detailing how vital it is for each body system. Yet drinking too close to mealtimes hampers digestion, as the digestive fluids become diluted. He recommends not drinking from 20 minutes before meals until two hours after meals. Rabbi Ishayek also advocates eliminating sugar, white flour, artificial sweeteners, and reducing salt intake.


Eat and Run 

Michael Kaufman may have been born 86 years ago, but hearing his daily regimen would make men half his age blush.

“I daven haneitz 365 days a year, and then, during the week, walk briskly from my home near Geula to Sacher Park — 45 minutes round trip, and work out at the park’s outdoor gym for 30 minutes. On Shabbos and Yom Tov mornings, I exchange the park for a walk to and from the Kosel for Shacharis. I swim laps a few times a week, and generally walk wherever I need to go, avoiding cars, buses, and elevators whenever possible. The only time I sit is while I’m eating. I often learn while working out on my elliptical machine, which is fitted with a stand to hold a sefer. I typically spend eight to ten hours a day writing at my standing-height shtender-desk, which I also use for learning.” 

With energy output like that what is the equivalent energy input that propels Kaufman?

“The central component of my diet is fruit and raw vegetables,” he says. “For protein, I eat herring, salmon, nuts, and chopped liver. That may sound funny considering liver’s high cholesterol content, but it’s offset by the fact that I don’t eat meat, fowl or dairy, and it’s a delicious source of protein with only a moderate amount of saturated fat. While whole grains are healthy, they’re not my thing, and aren’t part of my diet — no rice, pasta, bread or quinoa, although I do have challah on Shabbos. Once or twice a year, I’ll treat myself to a steak and fries at a good restaurant, and to a scoop of full-fat ice-cream.” His vote for the world’s healthiest food: the humble apple.

Diet and fitness are inseparable for good health, Kaufman says, but if forced to choose, fitness trumps. “The Rambam says that if a person exercises a lot and doesn’t overeat, he won’t become ill, even if he eats unhealthy foods, but if he eats the right foods but doesn’t exercise, his health will suffer. Strenuous exercise should be as integral and nonnegotiable to a person’s daily schedule as davening and eating.” 

But just as vital, he believes, is a steady diet of non-vigorous movement throughout the day. Cells need to keep moving in order to thrive. In his newly released book, Am I My Body’s Keeper? Torah, Science, Diet, and Fitness — for Life, Kaufman details the ruinous effects sitting has on the body — physiological changes that predispose a person to cardiovascular disease, inflammation, diabetes, and even death, as borne out by many published studies. Am I My Body’s Keeper is Michael Kaufman’s ninth book. He writes prolifically on Jewish thought as well as Jewish art and culture.

Kaufman doesn’t necessarily advocate his rigorous agenda for everyone, but avers that there dividends which justify such zealous (and exhausting) pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. “I feel 30 years younger than I am, and my doctors tell me my physiological age is many years behind my chronological age,” says the octogenarian. “Bli ayin hara I don’t get sick, and my heart is, baruch Hashem, healthy and strong. I’m five feet ten inches and weigh 138 pounds. With proper care, we can go into our 80s and beyond staying healthy and without suffering from age-related illnesses and disabilities.

“Our purpose in life is to serve Hashem, but this can only be achieved from a position of health, so actively taking steps to avoid debilitating disease — and thereby extending our lives — is fulfilling G-d’s Will,” he continues. “Even more so, it’s an obligation.”

But Kaufman doesn’t want to intimidate, and his book provides a range of strategies for dieting, exercise, and mindset to achieve health and fitness goals that are realistic and far-reaching. Even minor lifestyle changes, he says, can be beneficial, and the good news is that it’s never too late to reverse bad trends.

For optimal health, Kaufman says, avoid sitting. Pace when on the phone. Get off the bus a stop early. Shuckel away whenever you can.


Put on the Brakes 

Even if you can’t stand all day, you can still make sure to prepare your next meal with whole foods. According to Dr. Shmuel Shields, a nutritionist in Queens, NY, that’s the Torah-based way of eating.

“The Torah praises the Land of Israel for producing the Shivas Haminim, which are all whole foods,” he explains. “This teaches us that eating these whole foods, and by extrapolation other whole foods as well, is a positive and fulfilling way to eat.”

A whole food is one which remains in its natural state, with all the nutrients intact. If even one ingredient is removed from a food due to processing, that food is devitalized and reacts differently in the body. In the case of grains, processing strips away the husk and germ, where most of the fiber and nutrients are contained.

“Hashem put brakes into our food,” Dr. Shields explains. “As soon as fiber enters the stomach, it triggers a feeling of satiety, which keeps us from overeating. When we process foods and remove the fiber, we are removing the brakes, and need to eat more to feel full. On top of that, without the fiber to slow digestion, blood sugar quickly rises then plummets, leaving you hungry too soon after a meal.”

In his book L’chaim, 18 Chapters To Live By, Dr. Shields relates that at the beginning of the twentieth century, ten percent of our food was processed, while today, ninety percent of what we eat is altered from its natural state. He believes that the burgeoning rates of cancer and diabetes compared to a century ago is part of the fallout — processed foods are having a huge negative impact on our health.

“I use the words of Chazal to teach my clients to view the body as a vehicle that allows the soul to function, and food as the fuel for that vehicle,” Dr. Shields says. “If you abuse a car by feeding it poor-quality fuel, the parts will wear out. This is exactly what we do to our bodies with poor eating habits — we subject our kidneys, livers, hearts to unnecessary stress.”

Dr. Shields’s approach to guiding clients is on the relaxed side: no measuring food, no counting calories, no drastic changes. This, he says, is what makes it sustainable for people. “I assess how my clients are eating, and suggest some tweaks. I encourage rainbow nutrition, for people to get as many different colored whole foods into their day as possible, because each color provides unique phytochemicals and antioxidants crucial for health. For example, lycopene found in red produce has anticancer properties, chlorophyll in green foods has a cleansing effect on the blood, and beta carotene in orange foods supports immune function and promotes eye and skin health.  

Ideally, Dr. Shields says, we should be able to get all the nutrients we need from our diet. Back when farming was organic and produce went from field to table, this was feasible. Today, it can take two weeks for produce to get from the ground to the table, but soon after picking, many fruits and vegetables lose their vitality. Spinach, for example, has already lost 50 percent of its vitamin C content 24 hours after it’s picked. And because cornmeal is cheaper and easier than grazing, cows raised for beef today are fed that rather than grass, resulting in meat with lower levels of iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin K2. Because of the reduced quality of today’s supermarket foods, Dr. Shields recommends supplements to fill in the nutritional gaps.

Dr. Shields says he does his best to optimize food options under the circumstances in which we live. “I teach clients how to set up a smart plate — having the vegetables take up the most space, and learning what healthy portion-sizes look like,” he says. “When the source of your calories is from whole, colorful foods, and you pay attention to portion sizes, weight will automatically come off.”

For most people, weight loss is the bottom line, although followers of Torah-based eating plans generally say they’re not “on a diet,” but rather are feeding the body in a way that allows it to function the way it’s designed to. And isn’t this the best way to engender a feeling of supreme well-being, both physically and spiritually? It’s also nice to know that you can have your (whole-grain) cake and eat it too — that every bite of G-d’s delicious bounty can, with the right outlook, do double duty as a holy mitzvah as well.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 705)

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