Around this time of year, we often hear a lot of comparisons between the teshuvah process and dieting, as it appears to be the perfect analogy. This is not the case. With a closer look at dieting, it’s clear that the diet mashal to teshuvah is neither an accurate nor appropriate comparison.
Dieting Doesn’t Work
Teshuvah is supposed to be a long-term achievement. Dieting is not. Multiple studies have shown that dieting is not a long-term fix for weight loss and is, in fact, a consistent indicator for future weight gain.1 One-third to two-thirds of people regain, within four or five years, more weight than they lost.2 Not only is weight focus ineffective in producing healthier people, it also results in yo-yo dieting, distraction from health goals, reduced self-esteem and eating disorders.3
Teshuvah, on the other hand, is a process that effects permanent change when done properly, and is a celebration (hence Yom Kippur is called a mo’ed and people who eat on Yom Kippur say Yaaleh v’Yavo). While we may feel we do teshuvah year after year for the same issues, the defect is with us, and not the teshuvah process. Dieting is the opposite; the concept is flawed, and regardless of how many times we start a new diet, our body works to maintain our ideal weight (the weight we maintain when we are eating nutritiously and getting adequate physical activity), and the diet will fail us.
Food Is Not ‘Good’ Or ‘Bad’
Setting up the premise that dieting is equal to teshuvah creates the association that eating is bad, and must be limited or curtailed. Food is neither good nor bad, but rather a tool for our continued existence. When food is assigned moral descriptions such as “good” or “bad,” we feel morally good for eating “good” food and guilty and bad when we eat “bad” food. Food has no moral value; it is inherently neutral. All food provides us with some benefit, whether to nourish us physically or emotionally, help us celebrate, comfort or demonstrate love.
When taken to the extreme, an obsession with “good” or healthy foods can develop into orthorexia, which is “the fixation on righteous eating” and the desire to eat a clean, pure and perfectly healthy diet.4 While not clinically classified as an eating disorder, it is like other eating disorders, and negatively impacts one’s health, life and social interactions. Children, especially, pick up on this tendency, as they see or hear adults obsessing over specific foods and mimic that behavior.
Or parents excessively control intake of specific nutrients such as sugar or serve only organic produce,5 and that contributes to a child’s fear of “bad” food. And food restrictions and diet talk affects children at very young ages — 42 percent of girls in grades one to three want to be thinner, 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, and 46 percent of nine- to 11-year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets, most likely learned from family members, as 82 percent of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets.6
With concern to Torah living, there is black and white, in that mitzvos are good, aveiros are bad, and teshuvah can erase our bad and make it good. This is not reflected in our eating or restricting food. Eating does not make us good or bad or in need of cleansing. Dieting is not a viable solution to improving health, mindset or spirituality. On the contrary, food is credited with allowing us to reach greater spirituality.
When contemplating self-improvement this season, ditch the diet and focus on lasting change, by making clear goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time based (SMART).
Bracha Kopstick is a registered dietitian in Toronto and owner of BeeKay Nutrition. She takes the “diet” out of dietitian, and wants you to take it out of your life! As a nutrition expert, Bracha promotes eating home-prepared foods more often and taking time to enjoy what you eat without any associated guilt. She is available for in-person and on-line counseling. Contact her at Bracha@beekaynutrition.com
- Wolpert S. (2007). Dieting does not work, UCLA researchers report. Accessed online from http://newsroom.ucla.edu
2. Mann, T., Tomiyama, A.J., Westling, E., Lew, A.M., Samuels, B. & Chatman, J. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. American Psychologist 62(3) 220–233
3. Bacon, L. & Aphramor, L. (2011). Weight science: Evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutrition Journal 10(9)
4. Kratina, K. (2016). Orthorexia Nervosa. Accessed from Nationaleatingdisorders.org
5. Getz, L. (2009). Orthorexia: When eating healthy becomes an unhealthy obsession. Today’s Dietitian 11(6) 40
6. N.A. (2016). Get the facts on eating disorders. Accessed from nationaleatingdisorders.org