Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Teves 5766 - January 11, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Challenges of the Modern World: Diabetes and Obesity are Immoral

The incidence of diabetes is soaring in the United States. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) calls it an epidemic. Seven percent of all Americans are now known to have the disease. In New York City the figures are even higher: almost thirteen percent of all New Yorkers now have diabetes. Based on current trends, the CDC says that one in three Americans born five years ago will get diabetes in the course of their lifetime.

Many people think of diabetes as primarily a disease of old age, but this is no longer so. What is now called "Type 2" diabetes used to be called Adult-onset diabetes. The name had to be changed because more and younger people are getting it.

Type 1 diabetes usually appears in young people. There are no known environmental causes and it is believed to be basically genetic with possibly some environmental triggers. Type 2 diabetes is linked to obesity, physical inactivity and diet.

According to the CDC, diabetes can cause amputations, heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, pregnancy complications, and deaths related to flu and pneumonia. Heart disease is the leading cause of diabetes-related deaths. Death rates are 2-4 times higher for adults with diabetes than for those without the disease, at any given age.

The CDC and the other public health officials who work to inform the public and to reduce the disease and to lessen its destructive effects are medical and scientific professionals. They cannot be expected to notice the moral aspect of the problem, and perhaps they would get in trouble with the secular guardians of scientific purity if they did.

There are other diseases that are better known as being entangled with morality since they are directly transmitted through immoral acts. However the causes of diabetes are also strongly related to moral issues.

Diabetes is a disease that has a strong link to physical excess: it is associated with obesity, which is clearly the result of eating too much, and eating the wrong foods.

The wrong foods are known colloquially as "junk foods." The basic purpose of food is nourishment, to supply the body with what it needs to be healthy and strong in order for it to be able to fulfill its higher purposes in avodas Hashem. The fact that there is pleasure associated with eating is a great chesed in that we are drawn to do what we anyway must.

"Junk foods" turn things upside down: They are specially engineered by science to give pleasure, and any nutritive contribution is quite incidental. What draws people to eat them is quite simply the pursuit of pleasure, and nothing more.

It is a basic moral obligation for one to have the discipline and self-control to ensure "that he will not be unduly influenced by natural desires" (Mesillas Yeshorim, Neki'us, beginning of Chapter 10). A person must be in control of his desires and allow them to be indulged only where and when it is appropriate. If his desires lead him to obesity and possibly to diabetes, they are clearly not properly supervised.

Certainly, the moral failing that is behind obesity is quite mild when compared to other decadence that prevails in modern society in which violence and arayos are prominent and even admired. Yet many who manage to remain largely aloof from the worst excesses of modernity are still stained with this problem.

(It is worth mentioning that moral principles of judgment such as this one are meant for each person to apply to himself, whom he knows best, inside and out, as it were. It is improper and impractical to use such principles to criticize someone else. Also, and importantly, these are only general principles and do not necessarily apply to each individual case.)

All the medical experts concur that the best way to end the diabetes epidemic is by reducing obesity, and the recommended way to do that is by eating proper foods in moderation.

Recognizing that weight is a moral problem and not just a medical one also suggests that those who have to correct past excesses by going on a diet would be well-advised to include a daily dose of mussar as an important part of their diet regimen. Even those who already suffer from diabetes, can only benefit from studying mussar — may Hashem send them a refuah sheleimoh.

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