A friend of mine this week mentioned to me one of the really recurrent problems of the holiday season, no matter what your religion – or even lack of religion. It is an insidious and potentially dangerous problem. That this friend is one I know on a social media platform for healthy eating gives you some idea of this dangerous problem: Christmas cookies. Not just Christmas cookies of course, but potato latkes, sofganiot (a.k.a jelly doughnuts) yule logs and the terror of cardiologists everywhere: egg nog. There is also all those holiday editions of standard junk food that comes out this time of year like mint chocolate kisses and holiday Oreos. If one is trying for a healthy lifestyle, the month of December is not a good one.
There is a repeated story in the book of Exodus and the book of Numbers. the most extreme case is in Numbers chapter 11:
And the mixed multitude that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us meat to eat? We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; But now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes. And the manna was as coriander seed, and its color as the color of bdellium. And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of fresh oil. (Lev 11:4-8)
Ever had a craving? Here is a whole passage about cravings. It isn’t out of need, the people had perfect good and tasty manna, which for most people sounds delicious. Cravings are something besides a nutritional need. I’ve learned about cravings in a rather personal way. Back in 2004, I started on low carbohydrate diet. Due to a malicious prank done to me in seventh grade and an auto accident in college, my lower back could no longer stand the majority of my weight bearing down on it. It had decided that if I was going to put all that weight on it, it was going to shut down my sciatic nerve in response. For a month before I started, I could not walk, or stand without holding on to something as my legs were like rubber every time I got out of a chair. Thus 30 pounds had to go. Though taking my cue from Atkins diet, I did not get as strict as that diet. I figured that if I could cut my carbs down to 100 net carbs a day, I would lose weight, though slower than the Atkins. As I began my diet and did some research, I realized how many carbohydrates I was eating – almost a whole kilogram a day, with half being sugar. Dropping down to ten percent of that seemed reasonable. I was rather surprised when in that three months I dropped 35 pounds. Oddly enough, I felt more energized as well.
I thought about my diet the memorial day weekend after I had lost the weight and was maintaining it. People were amazed at my willpower to avoid some real no-nos on my diet, like cake with ice cream and hot fudge smothered all over it. During an Alaskan cruise with my I took with my mom (may her memory be for a blessing) that same year, I was also rather good. In a ship where it is very easy to gain weight from all the food, I actually lost a pound or two. While having the occasional dessert, I declined a lot and avoided even more. People were amazed when I went to the chocolate decadence midnight buffet and didn’t eat anything. This from the same guy who would used to say “life is uncertain, eat dessert first” and hit the dessert buffet before even looking at the appetizers.
I’ve talked to many people about the success I had, the verse from Numbers 11 keeps coming up. It too easy to start to want things we no longer can have. One can’t help but think of them. Things like chocolate for example. Then there’s the stuff we never eaten before but want to. In Numbers 11, during a desert trek people are going to have a hard time finding free seafood or green crops like cumbers. That they never actually had them back in Egypt is beside the point. Similarly on a diet, there is the potential for getting cravings when you can’t eat something, even something you’ve never had before. There are ways of dealing with those cravings however, and that’s what my diet taught me.
For those unfamiliar with biblical Hebrew, it is a rather nuanced language. There is a school of thought that God created the language, and every word, even in its spelling, carries nuanced thought. The Hebrew phrase for intense craving in the Torah passage is התאוו תאוה hitavu taaveh, which is a curious word. First of all it’s in the reflexive tense. It’s a craving the people gave to themselves. Secondly, the verbal root אוה Aleph-Vav-Hey is a little odd. From a grammatical standpoint you can’t get a weaker root than this: Two silent consonants in a hollow verb, which means it’s consonant is so weak, it’s often only a vowel. In short, if one looks at the verb, there’s almost nothing there and whatever seems to be is really self-imposed. So too with cravings — it’s entirely want we make of it.
There is the Hasidic story of a man on a little more extreme diet: He was involved in a week long fast for devotional purposes. One hour before his fast was to end he passed a well, and his craving for water overcame him. He walked to the well, but through force of will he stopped himself in time and walked away. He became overcome with pride in his act. But then he realized that it was better to ruin the fast with a drink of water than fall prey to the greater sin of pride. When he walked back to the well, his thirst was gone. The thirst was the want, not the need. The craving was all in his head.
So heres the secret to my dieting success: it’s analogous to eating kosher. In modern kashrut there are two possibilities when making food choices: either find a substitute which is Kosher, or do without it. Things we do with out, treif, we actually revile. In one of the many stories about pagan women trying to seduce Rabbi Akiba, Akiba has no interest in this incredibly seductive young woman who pulls out all the stops in trying to seduce him. When she fails, His host asks him about this as it was a test of Akiba’s fidelity. Akiba, explains that she was beautiful, but the pork on her breath made her repulsive. It wasn’t the sexy lady but the thought of pork that Akiba couldn’t stand. So my secret was simply thinking of high carb foods as treif. They simply lost all appeal for me. Whether it’s a pulled pork or pulled kosher chicken sandwich, any sandwich was bad in my eyes because I couldn’t stand eating bread. Cookies and doughnuts were just icky stuff. When there is an alternative, I went for that instead, such as a square of a 70% chocolate bar.
One of the downfalls of a diet based on low carbohydrates is that other things which aren’t healthy get eaten – like animal fats. While I don’t eat red meats, only poultry and fin fish, the amount of animal and processed fats were too high. When I had my first bad report on a cholesterol test, my eating fell apart, oddly enough on doctors orders. I tried to eat healthy and get the cholesterol back in line not only to fail that, but put all the weight back plus more, over several years of losing those habits. There was nothing I could think of as yuckky or treif, because everything got too confusing figuring out where the cholesterol was.
After a series of minor health related problems this year, my wife and I, who also wanted to lose some pounds, decided we would begin both a healthy eating and exercise program. We are training for a 5K run and counting our net calories, while watching all the other nutrients we are putting into our bodies. Our health has improved and we are losing weight, slower than last time but it is still coming off. I have noticed already some changes in my diet which brings back what happened back in 2004-2006. I’m back to getting sick to my stomach looking at doughnuts, for example. In a business meeting recently, not only did I feel sick looking at a doughnut, I actually got sick eating one so as to not refuse his hospitality. Many foods are no longer appetizing. High calorie foods are now once again like my view of a big slab of bacon, which has looked repugnant since I gave it up over fifteen years ago when I began some kosher observances.
As we enter the holiday season and many are tempted by bad food while we gain cravings which seem impossible to control, it might be good to remember these lessons. It is our minds that determine what is good or bad food, what we want to put into our mouths and stomachs. Just as we once learned that we should stuff our faces with Ho Ho’s and Big Macs, we can learn they are bad for us, and unappetizing as well for us spiritually and physically.