Too much to eat: Is gluttony a disease or a choice?

December 21, 2009

Judaism teaches that we are to enjoy the beauty, benefits, and bounty of creation. However, when it comes to overeating, Judaism is clear that too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

Gluttony – let’s call our reckless overeating by its proper name! – is dangerous and damaging. Sadly, it is also at epidemic proportions in the world today. In the United States alone, there are nearly four million individuals who weigh more than three hundred pounds! There are nearly one-half a million (mostly men) who weigh in at a nearly gargantuan four hundred pounds. The average adult female now weighs more than one hundred and sixty pounds!
These are astonishing numbers. And frightening. Of even greater concern are the trend lines when it comes to obesity – the necessary consequence of overeating.

 Between 1962 and the year 2000, the number of obese Americans grew from 13% to an alarming 31% of the population;
 63% of Americans are overweight with a Body Mass Index (BMI) in excess of 25.0;
 31% are obese with a BMI in excess of 30.0;
 Childhood obesity in the United States has more than tripled in the past two decades, and;
 According to the U.S. Surgeon General report obesity is responsible for 300,000 deaths every year.

These frightening trends towards more and more obese Americans are growing, as are the negative consequences of obesity. As more and more doctors and nutritionists have “weighed in” on the overeating crisis, they have contributed to a debate about whether overeating is a “disease” or “willful behavior.”
Most people, when confronted by the question whether overeating is a disease or a behavior, answer reflexively – and with a sense of certainty that comes from such a reflexive answer. The question though, deserves more thoughtful consideration. It is not as simple a question as it first appears. And our response to it has a number of direct implications. Some argue that that other eating disorders – like anorexia and bulimia – are considered a disease. Why not overeating? And if obesity is a disease, then much of the stigma of being severely overweight disappears; it becomes easier to get treatment, and could open the door for insurance providers to cover treatments for people grappling with weight problems.

Others reject the argument that obesity is a disease. They consider obesity and overeating solely a failure of self-control. After all, they would argue, we each have total control of the calories we ingest and of the time that we spend exercising.

“If you’re fat, you’ve made a choice.”

Disease or choice?

As it does on other questions of behavior, on this question Judaism assigns responsibility to the individual.

We should never forget that Judaism considers the enjoyment of physical things, including food, to be a very good thing. This is why God created the world, after all. Raavad advises us that we should not avoid tasty food… it is enough to avoid what is already forbidden by Torah. The reasoning is clear. God has taught us what we are to avoid. What we are not instructed to avoid, we can – and should – embrace. If God has not instructed us to avoid something, then it is to be enjoyed. However, even when enjoying the beauty of creation, it is possible to overdo it. Raavad tells us that when one is eating and has had enough to feel full, yet he still wants more, he should hold himself back to honor God, and not surrender to his desires.

This understanding suggests that eating – like any kind of enjoyment of God’s creation – is really a kind of prayer, a kind of devotion. We should enjoy it. But to overindulge is to give in to extreme desire which dishonors God and His creation. Therefore, so one does not accidentally show a lack of honor to the Creator, he should leave over a little food before the last morsel is gone. This practice is known as Taanis HaRaavad – the Raavaad’s fast.

Just as on Yom Kippur, when Jews fast to focus their minds and thoughts on God, each day it is possible to engage in a “small fast” that accomplishes the same purpose!

The overindulgent one, the gluttonous one, is often the object of condemnation in the Bible. The Torah depicts Esau’s eating habits as a key element to his degradation and corruption. He gruffly demands that Jacob pour the food into his mouth, and then the Torah states, “He ate, he drank, he got up, and he left; thus Esau spurned the birthright.”

Esau’s downfall is tied to his gluttony. The Torah’s damning description of the wayward son, the ben sorer u’moreh, is one who is “a glutton and a drunkard.”

In the Torah portion Ha’azinu, in Deuteronomy, the next to the last portion in the annual Torah cycle, God warns of the terrible spiritual slide the people might experience. The portion begins by warning the people that if they become overly involved in physicality, they will remove Godliness from themselves – that there is a direct connection between how we are physically in the world and how we are spiritually. “…you became fat, thick and rotund and deserted God…” the Torah says of Israel.

Sin is the necessary consequence of overeating.

One of the sad ironies of overeaters is that they no longer even enjoy the food being eaten. Too often, they finish their meal without ever having taken note of the pleasure of the food or the eating. Their eating is purely carnal.

This is, of course, one of the major causes of overeating – eating without thinking. We should eat slowly and savor the taste of each bite, taking time to recognize God’s gifts. In this way we will feel full before we overeat. We will be sated. Satisfied.

One would think that someone who overeats does so because he or she completely enjoys eating. But, ironically, enjoyment and satisfaction are the first “losers” when it comes to overeating.

People do not overeat because they love food and take great pleasure in eating it. As we have seen, in a Jewish context, overeating is tied to sinfulness. However, even the secular world recognizes that overeating and obesity is “bad.” Go into any bookstore and you will find shelf after shelf of dieting books.
People eat to excess. This is not a disease. It is a moral problem.

What drives someone to overeat? While there may be as many answers to that question as there are overeaters, but there are a number of broad areas that we might consider.

Despite our 24/7 culture, in which stimuli are thrust at people – on television, the Internet, Smartphones – constantly and incessantly, many overeaters do so because they are bored. People eat when they don’t have anything “interesting” to do or look forward to. Even worse, when people find themselves watching television, they are bombarded by commercial after commercial celebrating food – usually junk food and soda.

Those images conspire with the boredom and drive many people to eat, and not just eat but to eat empty calories.

For others, the reason they overeat is deeper. Our world is profoundly isolating. People reach out to friends but they are “virtual” friends, friends they “twitter” or visit on Facebook, or email. But people need more than “interaction.” We all need contact. We need community. We need the support of others. Too many people turn to food when they need love and comfort.

Reaching out to people is hard to do at the end of a long, stressful day at work. Food is so much more accessible. Gratification is immediate – gratification and not satisfaction! Relationships take work and work takes energy. If you are already tired and feeling burnt out; if you feel it is near impossible to muster the energy to reach out to others… well, food is an attractive alternative.

Some people overeat because they have “given up.”

“Why shouldn’t I just keep eating? I’m already fat…”

“I’m so fat, no one’s going to ever love me anyway…”

Our society breeds such self-contempt for our bodies! We have created a culture in which young women (and men) are confronted with impossible body ideals and so are left feeling that they are “ugly” and “fat” even if they are perfectly normal. Already feeling that they are fat and ugly, they overeat because “what difference does it make anyway?”

They are sad and lonely. And because of their negative body images, they don’t believe they deserve to feel any different.

There are those who overeat in reaction to an emotional hurt. When someone says or does something to hurt another, they eat to make themselves feel better. They eat in response to anxiety and emotional stress.

God has created a world that is good. Jewish teaching holds that we are to engage and enjoy the world. This is certainly true when it comes to eating – our celebration of the most joyous event in our calendar, the Exodus from Egypt, takes place around the dinner table! Our holidays are associated with food – blintzes on Shavuot, apples on Simchat Torah, jelly donuts and latkes on Hanukah. To eat is to live.

But to overeat is to cross over from the enjoyment of God’s creation to the dishonoring of it.


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