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Struggling With Overeating

May 9, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Feige Twerski

Mastery over food is a key to self-esteem and true spiritual fulfillment.

Dear Rebbetzin Feige,

I am 37 years old and have battled a weight problem since I was a teenager. I have received all kinds of assistance and nothing works. I feel I am at a dead end with my relationship to food. I have prayed to God to help me with this "evil inclination." I would appreciate any guidance.

Dear Reader,

An ancient Jewish aphorism asserts that knowing that one's own affliction is also suffered by many others is in and of itself a measure of comfort. That being the case, struggling with obesity in our times is in the company of the many and thus partially comforting.

Obesity is one of the ubiquitous issues of our time. Being overweight in a society whose motto is "you can never be too thin or too rich" can be a heart-wrenching experience. There are those who have seriously expressed an "if only" wish that they might have lived in previous eras where “zaftig” and substantial in body configuration was a desirable norm. They point to the paintings of the masters of that day (e.g. Rembrandt) whose female figures were certainly not of the emaciated variety that are considered attractive in our current milieu. The fuller figures of yesteryear represented a status of plenty, whereas today's idealized specimen would have raised concerns of scarcity, or worse yet, of illness.

Being overweight in our society can be a heart-wrenching experience.

We live in a time, as reflected in the voice of the reader, where the problem of being overweight is of paramount concern and has been labeled a “deadly epidemic,” “plague,” or at the very least a “crisis.” Health issues such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease, etc. all seem to be exacerbated by, if not caused by, obesity.

The psychological fallout is equally devastating. Obesity in a culture that worships “thin” must perforce lead to painful issues of low self-esteem.

In addition, it often gives rise to depression which psychologists define as anger turned inward. The obese person often finds him/herself isolated, either because of his perception of what others think of him, or self-imposed by lethargy, despair, etc. This in turn leads to more overeating and invokes a vicious cycle.

Kate is a person of keen mind and great accomplishments. She is a wife and mother and has degrees in law, architecture, masonry, business and a myriad of other talents. Her husband used to jokingly comment that he could never predict what hat she would be wearing when he came home from work.

Despite all her achievements, Kate found no peace or pleasure in life, because she could not master what, in her mind, was her greatest challenge -- controlling her weight. Ultimately, when health issues arose, both her doctors and her rabbi supported her decision to have gastric bypass surgery. The change was dramatic. It was as though she got a new lease on life. She was no longer driven feverishly to find new horizons to conquer. There was a sense of peace and tranquility that finally permeated her person.

Similarly, Rachel has battled weight all her life. The extent to which she is tormented by it, was revealed in conversation one day, when she shared that her seriously-compromised special needs child did not come close to the agonizing challenge that obesity did.

Sedentary Lifestyle

To treat the syndrome of overeating as the inability to eat in a disciplined fashion is perhaps an oversimplification of what is often a multi-layered and complex issue.

It goes without saying that the first order of treatment for the overweight person is to have a thorough medical evaluation to rule out metabolic issues such as thyroid. Genetics often play a role, but the overwhelming thinking is that one is not hopelessly doomed by genes.

A major contributing factor to this raging problem has been identified as the sedentary lifestyle we lead. An innovative primary school in Chicago introduced the “walking school bus” concept, where children are encouraged to walk the mile or so to school. They begin the day with 60 minutes of yoga or body movements. Their lunch program consists of only healthy choices. This parenthetically, is a public school, not a school for privileged children. Both students and parents are delighted. It has been indisputably demonstrated that children who eat healthy and are active perform better in school and have higher self-esteem.

Another nemesis to healthy eating is the fact that families today are often comprised of two working parents, where “takeout food” is frequently the comfortable choice. Furthermore, hours of TV viewing promotes, among other noxious results, eating with no recourse to burning off calories.

8 Practical Steps

It is imperative to get to the root of the problem and figure out, perhaps with the help of outside intervention, what triggers the overeating response. If seriously addressed, one can begin to recognize patterns that will help discover why or when overeating takes place. There are weight control programs that focus primarily on how and for what purpose one uses food.

Here are eight basic guidelines to prevent overeating, that can be incorporated into one’s daily habits.

1. If you are not really hungry, but just want to “cozy up” with a piece of chocolate cake to assuage a concern or a worry, try seeking comfort elsewhere -- i.e. call a friend, take a walk outside, clean a closet etc, etc.

2. Eat consistently. Don't fall prey to feast or famine by starving yourself all day and then stuffing yourself at dinner. Small meals throughout the day when you are hungry works better. In many societies the main heavy meal is consumed at lunchtime, rather than in the evening, so that one may burn off the calories.

3. Exercise regularly, not only for weight control, but for both physical and mental health, such as mood enhancement, etc. Exercise has also been shown to diminish the craving for sweets and junk food.

Total denial gives food more seductive power. Everything is acceptable within limits.

4. Eat smaller portions -- one cookie instead of a batch. Total denial gives food more seductive power. Everything is acceptable within limits.

5. Keep sweets and other problematic foods out of reach and out of sight. Studies have demonstrated that those who keep candies on their desk or easily accessible, have a five-times greater propensity to eat candy than those who have to get up to get them.

6. Pre-plate your food. Take a designated portion out of the bag, can, pot, or what ever container the food came in -- and put the rest away.

7. Use smaller bowls, plates and spoons, which will also make for eating less.

8. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Unlike calorie-dense foods such as cake, candies and other sweets, fruits and vegetables have a high fiber content which helps keep you feeling full. Some of my friends keep prepared platters with bite-size snacks of fruits and vegetables, so that when they and their children walk into the house famished, they will grab a healthy snack instead of junk food.

Profit vs. Loss

Next, I would like to address how the reader refers to his "relationship with food" as his "evil inclination." I think it is a rather harsh assessment. "Challenge," in my estimation, would be a better term.

Gary has been struggling with a weight problem for years. In past conversations, he attributed his overeating to simply opting for pleasure over pain -- the pain of denying himself and the unwillingness to incur the discomfort of postponing gratification. Lately, he has been looking slim and healthy, and he shared that he’d made a list of gains and losses to consider whether to eat sensibly, or to indulge in excessive eating. He categorized them in the following way:

Gary’s Gains of Sensible Eating:

a. The way I feel about myself -- i.e. improved self-esteem.

b. The willingness to risk, and the resulting empowerment of other areas of life.

c. The sense of pride that others would take in my accomplishment.

d. Success in managing my weight allows me to be a role model and mentor in this and other areas.

Gary’s Losses from Overeating:

a. Settling for a degree of failure, and hence the inability to accomplish other goals.

b. The thought that if prayer had not been successful in this area, it raises questions about other things that he would pray for.

c. How people looked at me, and how opportunities are missed because of my physical appearance.

I asked Gary about the role prayer in achieving his success. He explained that his request of God was very specific. He prayed that God assist him by strengthening and reinforcing his resolve and determination.

Gary spoke of his uphill battle to disabuse himself of his addictive behavior, and to opt for the best and most self-respecting part of himself. He admitted that, consciously or subconsciously, he had been sabotaged by self-defeating behavior, which kept him stuck in mediocrity. His full potential and creativity were constantly being stifled by his posture of least resistance. Now, his new dynamic of self-control with food had empowered him to consider possibilities of growth and achievement in other areas of his life that he had never entertained before.

Transforming the Ordinary

There is a story told of a simple Jew in the time of pogroms in Europe who used to gorge himself obsessively with whatever food came his way. Though reluctant to respond when questioned about his strange behavior, he finally broke his silence, and with tears streaming down his face, spoke of his father, a pious Jew, who because of his slight physical stature was an easy victim for his treacherous attackers. When his father was murdered, he vowed that he would eat and eat so that his huge body could put up greater resistance when the time would come for him to defend his Judaism.

The dedication of this pure, simple soul -- misguided though it might have been -- is touching but far beyond our scope.

What is relevant for us, however, is that every behavior -- no matter how physical its expression -- is an opportunity for a spiritual connection by means of mindfulness and sublimation. Blessings of gratitude and thanksgiving -- recited with intent, before and after ingesting food -- moves us into a Godly realm.

Jacob's ladder had feet firmly planted on the ground, and head reaching the heavens.

Our typical days provides myriad opportunities to make formal or informal appeals to the Master of the Universe -- to help us use the energy derived from the delights of this world, to do His Will and to be better people. This attitude transforms ordinary acts -- eating, sleeping, vacationing, etc. -- into one seamless tapestry of spiritual service. If we would integrate this approach into daily living, slowly but surely we would plug into the paradigm of Jacob's ladder -- with feet firmly planted on the ground, and head reaching the heavens.

Chassidic writings discuss how many of our daily activities are actually tools to access a higher reality. Love of children, spouse, friends and pleasures, can be a medium through which to achieve love of God. Likewise, the experience of fear -- thunder and lightning, dark, safety, etc. -- can be converted it into awe of the Infinite One.

Emptiness Inside

My three-year-old grandson, Yitzel, was having a rough day in the playpen, nudging his mother that he was bored. After rejecting suggestion after suggestion, my daughter, Chadshie, in exasperation, told him to just go out into the backyard and find someone to play with. Two minutes later, he was back, saying to Chadshie, "Mommy, there’s no one out there. No boys, no girls, no one at all. It is just full of empty."

"It is just full of empty" is an apt description what many of us feel at one time or another as we move through life. But there are those whose “feeling empty” is a more constant and desperate existential state. And this may compel one to try to fill that emotional or spiritual void with binging on food, or whatever they think might fill the emptiness inside of them.

The prophet Isaiah states that there will come a time of great hunger and great thirst, "Not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but rather to hear the word of God." I have a strong feeling that if we would carefully examine the underpinnings of hunger and thirst gone awry in our day, we will discover that that these sensations are in fact spiritual hunger for the word of God.

It is conceivable that this phenomenon is an expression of "God in search of Man," an invitation from the Master of the Universe to His Table. Food for the soul is the currency. Increasing our commitment to Torah study, prayer-meditation and transcendent acts of kindness would be a meaningful and potent response to the insatiable hunger we feel.

The Torah assures us twice in Deuteronomy: "You will eat and you will be satisfied." The second identical verse appears repetitive but, in fact, comes to tell us that when we are aligned spiritually with the Almighty, blessing will inhere in the morsel of food that we ingest, such that the minimum amount will satisfy us.

Indeed, there is a holistic congruence, a correspondence between the physical and spiritual spheres of existence. When all is well in one realm, it resonates with the other. Like the reader, each one of us has our own battles to fight, struggles to overcome and issues to rectify. Hopefully, our dedicated efforts to do so will hasten the long-awaited redemption when all the pieces will finally fall into place, and mankind will thirst no more.

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