Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Iyar 5766 - May 3, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family

Going Crazy over Diets
by Mrs. L. Raffles

"Do you hate yourself because you are overweight?

"If our feelings about ourselves are too tied up with how we look, then we need help to see ourselves in a positive light before we add the extra stress of the diet."

Some physiology, some psychology, plus some good old Jewish hashkofoh.

About NOT dieting, for a change . . .

There's always a lot of talk about weight and the need for people to diet. There are known health risks to being overweight, so we are all being encouraged to shed the extra weight, or even better, not to gain it in the first place. And that's where the diets come in. But if we look at the language of diets, we can see a problem.

A person 'goes on' a diet. She 'tries a diet.' 'Have you tried this one (or that one)?' You have to 'find the right diet' to suit you. This would seem to indicate that diets are temporary 'things' that one 'does' to achieve a certain aim, and then one gets back to normal. There is also a strong moral element to the language. Looking 'good' means being thin. Being 'good' means keeping to the diet. We talk of food one 'is allowed', and eating 'forbidden food,' or 'cheating.' Thin is 'good,' fat is 'bad.' Now, I am no expert on diets, and I know that people successfully lose weight using them. But I do know a bit about psychology, and more than a bit about physiology.

Firstly the physiology. The body makes fat because we are created for survival, not the fashion industry. If there is excess food (calories), then the body stores the extra in case of future lean times. Fat also plays an important role in warmth. And during pregnancy, fat is laid down to ensure an ample rich milk supply for the infant. It makes perfect sense, and I'm sure that in the course of human history, this mechanism has saved many lives.

In the present era, the issue of food is not its lack, but its abundance. Also, given the type of processed foods available, food has altered beyond recognition. Some obese people are actually malnourished. We have the dubious luxury in this generation of living long enough to die of obesity-related illness. In the past, few lived long enough for that to be the main health issue. Malnutrition, infectious diseases and dying in childbirth were far more serious concerns.

When we eat, the food is broken down and used for several things. For growth (in children) and repair and replacement of the body cells and tissues. The food also supplies energy for two main things: maintenance (just being alive uses energy — and this is called the metabolic rate), and energy to perform all our activities.

The body can never know in advance each day's energy needs, or how regular or calorific the meals will be. Also, we cannot release all the energy from a meal into the blood at one time, but it needs to be released in a steady stream, with adjustments made when energy output changes. For this reason, there is always some food put into storage in the liver, and according to our energy output, so will it be released into the blood. This occurs very quickly. Fat, on the other hand, will only be used as a last resort, and is broken down slowly. One needs to think of the body as what it is, a survival machine.

In order to lose weight, there has to be a deficit. We have to convince our bodies to take out of storage (lose fat). When we try to lose weight, we have to decrease the calorie- energy input (eat less), and increase the output (exercise).

There are diets that work on a different philosophy altogether, and revolve around a premise that the body will use food differently (less efficiently?) if certain foods are eaten separately from one another, or certain food groups are left out. But regardless of the type of diet, we are trying to make our bodies give up its store. This often has the consequence of convincing the body that those lean times have come and this causes a lowering of the metabolic rate, and an increase in the body's storage efficiency. The consequences of this are very significant.

One consequence is that the vast majority of people who lose weight successfully, gain it back again, often with interest, within two years. This is because most people go 'on' diets, and then 'off' them when they are 'finished.' When they go off the diet, the body is quick to lay in stores in case another famine (diet) comes. Therefore, in each cycle, it gets progressively harder to lose the weight and keep it off. The evidence is that for most people, diets do not work in the long term. Weight loss has to be accompanied by significant and permanent lifestyle changes. It is also becoming clear that cyclic dieting (going up and down in weight) is more dangerous than just staying fat.

People differ in a number of significant ways. Firstly, some people seem to use up more energy for living. This is called having a higher metabolic rate. People also differ greatly in their ability to store fat, and some bodies are more wasteful than others. People also have different-sized bones, so one can get three people who are 5'3", one of whom has a shoe size 4 (37), another 6 (39) and still another 8 (41).

These differences show themselves in the great variety of body shapes we observe. This variety exists even in times or places when food is not as abundant as now. There will still be fat and thin people. In societies where not having enough food is an issue, then being fatter is considered healthy, and often, beautiful as well. In some places, there are naturally thin children who are force-fed to become fat! Unfortunately, society's attitude to weight has more influence over us than information about potential health problems. We absorb the prevalent attitudes about how it is 'good' to look, and the health issues are really by the way.

If you want to lose weight, consider the following points before you start your next diet: * On a diet, you will have to feel hungry or deprived in some way. Many diets ensure us that we will not feel hungry, and often tell us that we can eat as much as we like (at least of certain foods). Even if this is true, the body can weigh and measure calories with uncanny accuracy. If your body is used to a certain calorie intake, you will feel the lack if you take in less. And whatever diet you are on, you will have to restrain your hand at kiddushim, stop yourself from being your children's garbage disposal unit, and be careful not to eat impulsively. And you will have to keep up your guard in the long term if you don't want the weight back again.

* You will need to think a lot more about food: You will need to think about what to eat, and make sure you have planned ahead, and bought what you need. You will have to look at the quantities you eat, in some cases weighing and measuring. Or you will have to look at the types of food you eat. Can you make a satisfying meal that you like with the food types you are allowed?

* Diets take time: You will need to make sure your life has the time for the thinking, planning and extra cooking that may be necessary. Checking vegetables can be very time consuming, especially the dieter's favorites, lettuce, leek and cabbage. Also, you will need time for exercise to become a long-term part of your life.

* Diets, and healthy eating in general, are, unfortunately, more expensive: Fresh orange juice costs more than cheap syrup, or cola. A cucumber can cost twice the price of a package of potato chips (crisps). Buying lettuce that doesn't need checking can be very costly (at least here in England).

The consequence of these points is that diets can be very stressful.

Now to the psychology.

Let's look at us overweight mothers, not the children or men, each of which has its own causes and possible solutions. Why are we overweight or fat? Is it because we eat at MacDonald's and watch too much T.V?

Let's face it, our being fat is generally caused by gaining weight during pregnancy, and finding the demands of the new- born, toddlers, teenagers (!) and those in between very time- consuming and stressful. We hardly sit down all day, and then we are told we don't get enough exercise! We eat on the go, what we can, when we can.

Many of us suffer, if not from full blown post-natal depression, then a sort of mild sub-clinical depression, caused by swinging hormones, chronic lack of sleep, having overwhelming demands made on us: anxiety about family relationships, children, money, etc. etc.

Food may be much more to us than fueling our bodies. We often find that certain foods calm us, or make us feel pampered (and don't we need that sometimes?). And the truth is that chocolate really does help stress, and can be addictive (at least mildly so). As mothers in the kitchen, we are around food all the time, and for some women, this is a major problem.

It seems that there are different types of dieters. The first are ladies whose weight has always been 'within the normal range,' and whose regular eating and exercise patterns are good ones that do not normally lead to a weight increase. However some 'event' (often pregnancy) causes an increase in weight. If a woman now 'goes on a diet,' her weight will go back to normal, and she will stay like that. Such a woman doesn't need the lifestyle changes we are talking about; she's already conscious of what she eats. Women like this, and the women that never seem to gain weight in the first place, unwittingly make all the rest of us look and feel like hopeless failures!

Another type of dieter has had a high body weight since she can remember, and on and off over the years, she has struggled to lose weight, but somehow, whether it's a month or two years later, the weight has crept back on again. This type of dieter is often on the lookout for new diets to try, and is especially vulnerable to the hype about the easy diet that 'works every time.'

Then there are ladies who remember their slim days, and hate the look of themselves, and are also caught in cyclic dieting. Often, this cycle is peppered with guilt and self- loathing. It goes like this. 'I hate myself because I'm fat. I look disgusting, it shows what an awful un-together person I am, etc.'

The diet starts with the high motivation of 'this time I am going to keep it; you wait and see.' The weight comes off, and then the going gets tough; there's a Yom Tov, a simchah, a stressful situation, and the diet slips. "I've blown it! I can't do anything right; it's a waste of time to even try!"

She now eats more than usual because she has felt so deprived while on the diet, but she hates herself all the time for over-eating. After a while she settles down, finds she's back to square one or worse, and resolves to start all over again.

To avoid this cyclic dieting, before you try the next diet, consider the following questions:

1) Do you hate yourself because you are overweight? Our intrinsic value is regardless of our external appearance. If our feelings about ourselves are too tied up with how we look, then we need help to see ourselves in a positive light before we add the extra stress of the diet.

2) Do you think your thin neighbor is more put together, competent, and geshickt than you are? Another unhealthy attitude.

3) Do you turn to food when under stress? If you eat when stressed, then you cannot expect to lose weight and keep it off unless you can change how you deal with stress, or get rid of the stress. Just telling yourself that you are going to control yourself this time (i.e. during this diet) is self- deceiving. But even if it were true, and you control yourself long enough to lose the weight, will you control yourself the rest of your life?

4) Is your life particularly stressful at the moment? There are better and worse times to try to lose weight. Losing weight has to be 'weighed' against all our other priorities. Some women find that if they diet when the nursing baby is still young then the baby gets more cranky, and in some cases does not gain enough weight. Often by the time we have reached a quieter period of our lives, when the babies have grown, we have also reached the age where losing weight is even more difficult. Know yourself, and your limitations.

5) Have you time for exercise in your life? Health-wise, it may be more significant to get some mild exercise and improve your general fitness than to lose weight (only to gain it back again). You will also feel a lot better physically and psychologically.

6) Are there practical ways in your area to get exercise? Is it safe to walk, and is there someone to go with? Are there classes or swimming sessions at prices you can afford at a good time for you? There's no point in saying you'll exercise if there are too many 'buts...' [As for those concerned with community health, providing low-cost, tzniusdik exercise opportunities, at convenient times (don't guess what they are — ask!) or with childcare facilities will be greatly appreciated. And success should not be measured in pounds and kilos, but in general fitness and improved feelings of well-being.]

7) Do you want to lose weight? You can't lose weight because your mother or your teenage daughter want you to. Not even for your husband. At the end of the day (especially a long hard one, when you want to reach for the chocolate), you have to do it for yourself. You need to analyze your reasons, and your level of motivation. Being jealous of the neighbor is not sufficient motivation. It's a nice motivator to reward yourself for success, but the real motivation has to come from within.

8) Do you have a realistic goal for weight loss? Are you 45 and still dreaming of the waistline you had at 20? Do you just want a healthier, fitter body that feels good (you just want to see your toes again!), or do you want to be body beautiful? Can you accept that your ideal weight may be at the upper end of the 'ideal weight' graph, not the lower? Will you be happy if, from a health perspective you're okay, but you're not looking as 'good' as you would like?

9) All things considered, do you have the resolve, time, energy and money to devote to losing weight and keeping it off?

In summary, women have to move away from the shame they feel about themselves because of their shape. And while no one would argue about the health benefits of being a good weight, we have to look at the whole picture.

Our weight problems, such as they are, are not caused in the same way as in the non-Jewish world. Neither can our solutions be the same as theirs. One can definitely consider weight gain as an occupational hazard of having a large family. There are many others, and unless the weight gain is extreme, it's not the worst of them.

Many women have unhealthy attitudes about themselves and/or an unhealthy relationship with food (using food to cope). Instead of obsessing about our weight, we should be working on accepting ourselves, and our limitations. We worry what others think of us. Perhaps they think that we don't care how we look, or that we have no self-control. Perhaps others do think that, but that's their problem.

We should work on developing healthy, Torah-based attitudes to our bodies and the food we eat, as well as getting rid of guilt about our weight, (and while we're about it, we can dump the guilt about a lot of other things as well). Of course, this, like all growth, is a lifetime's work, and often needs someone with whom to talk it through.

Focus on spiritual and emotional growth, and work on making the long-term attitudinal changes needed to make you more spiritually and psychologically healthy. Then find healthier ways to deal with the stresses in your life, and move towards the kind of thought patterns that make permanent weight loss a possibility. Even if you never lose weight you will still have become a better person.

If dieting is not the way forward for you, then consider trying to introduce one session a week of exercise, like a class, walking or swimming. Something you enjoy. Instead of turning your whole life upside down for a diet, try eating about a third less of your regular food at each meal. Try to contain the noshing while not committing yourself to long- term abstinence.

Don't obsess about food, but don't not think about it either. If you don't lose, at least you won't gain more. For long- term success, the important things are: the slower you lose weight the greater the chance of it staying off. And the less you have to put yourself out, change your life, or add stress to your life because of a weight-loss program, the more likely you are to succeed.


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.