Chassidic Solution To Overeating

by Rivka Johnson 
Essays 2015

Third Place Winner of the MyLife Essay Contest

Many people today struggle in their relationship with food. Both men and women find it difficult to navigate the decisions around what, how, and how much to eat. Various types of eating problems, including compulsive overeating, present a major challenge to people and are a source of deep guilt, shame and anxiety. The teachings of Chabad Chassidus offer an approach to eating that can resolve this complex issue. Through applying the Chassidic idea of being mindful of G-d throughout the day, acting with conscious intent, and viewing life as a journey towards greater connection with G-d, a person can use their eating experience and pleasure of food as a way to draw closer to G-dliness.

This mindframe during eating regulates one’s relationship with food, bringing it into balance. As a daily practice, over time, this way of eating elevates the total person as well as successfully addressing their food and eating issues.

[aside] Eating is simple, primal, and necessary for life, and yet for many people today food has become anxiety-provoking and complicated. [/aside]

Eating is simple, primal, and necessary for life, and yet for many people today food has become anxiety-provoking and complicated. Food habits have gradually changed in the last half century to include more processed foods, more snacking and less home cooking. Since the 1980s rates of obesity have escalated in the developed world to epidemic proportions. The availability of ‘hyperpalatable’ foods, which are high in fat, sugar and salt, and overly processed, has been blamed for overeating because studies show these foods trigger reward centers in the brain(1). The compulsive nature of overeating means that you eat although you don’t want to. This has psychological ramifications; like an addict, the overeater feels out of control in the face of the food. They feel the food has power over them, and they feel they are weak and lack willpower.

Compulsive eating then leads to deep feelings of shame and guilt, and low self esteem. There are also other ways our relationship with food can be out of balance. Some people develop a rigid and  zealous approach to eating. So called ‘orthorexics’ have strict and detailed rules over what they do and don’t eat. Though they may be at a healthy weight, such people can feel lots of anxiety over eating certain types of food. Though it may seem harmless compared to overeating, judging your self worth based on how much you can control your eating is the flip side of compulsive overeating. It is not a healthy relationship with food, because its not simply about nourishment and enjoyment.

[aside] Compulsive eating then leads to deep feelings of shame and guilt, and low self esteem. [/aside]

Amidst the din and clamour of a thousand contradictory diet programs, and the despair as each one fails in turn, Chabad Chassidus offers a ray of hope. The Chassidic approach to eating, as discussed by the Rebbe in two different talks(2), sidesteps the obsession with what to eat. It lifts a person out of the diet confusion to a simple and direct relationship with food. There is one occasion in the Torah where the Jewish people, travelling through a barren desert after leaving Egypt, are fed purely spiritual food called Mon. Mon were edible seeds that appeared on the ground each morning with  the dew. Mon was miraculous: it fell from heaven and the same amount provided perfect nutrition for every person. Mon didn’t need nutrients and vitamins because it provided direct spiritual nourishment. Eating it was like ingesting Divine radiance and being sustained physically through this. This type of eating is eating like angels. Angels, as created beings, also need nourishment, but they are not physical beings. They don’t need carbs and proteins; what they need is a flow of G-dly energy that keeps them in existence. Whilst eating the mon, the Jews were kept alive physically through purely spiritual food. The truth is, that all our food is like mon and if we can approach it like the miracle it is we are on our way to healthy and holy eating. Rather than focusing on the nutritional content of the food as the source of our health, we focus on the true Source of the food, on G-d. As we eat, we are mindful that everything is from G-d: the food, the ability of the food to nourish, our desire for the food, the taste of the food, and our enjoyment of it. In addition, we can also be aware that us eating is a sign that we are not independent beings. We need to eat, like angels do, because no creature can sustain its own life. Thus, every time we eat we are reminded of the truth that we are reliant on G-d.

Going even further, the Rebbe discusses how even eating for pure pleasure, as opposed to for health and nutrition, can be positive. Pleasure relaxes us and opens us up mentally and emotionally. We are more receptive to learning and overcoming our personal blocks. As we bring our lives in alignment with how G-d wants us to live, the experience of pleasure helps us on this journey. If we are living sanctified lives, trying to grow and to develop a deep relationship with G-d, then our pleasure will fit in with this overarching life goal.

Mindfulness and awareness is the cornerstone of this Chabad approach to eating. When you are mindful of G-d as the creator, then each bite brings you closer to Him. You think of how you are dependant on Him for life. You think of the great potential of your soul to draw close to G-d, to live in alignment with your truth. Your eating is a meditation. There are two main concepts of Chassidic teachings involved here. The first is to always act with conscious intent(3). Whatever we do, we should do with full awareness. We are mindful of the present moment and not unconscious. Our intention in doing something changes the entire nature of the act. You can eat the same piece of food, but if you ate it mindful of its source in G-d it was a completely different act than if you ate in unconsciously, or compulsively. This idea is touched on in the Tanya, the fundamental text of Chabad Chassidus. Chapter 7 says that if you drink ‘spiced wine’ in order to relax and feel expansive, to open your mind to learn Torah and better serve G-d, then that is a holy act. If however, a person drinks the same wine in order to pursue pleasure for its own sake, then it has a negative impact. The action is neutral – it’s the conscious purpose that makes the difference.

The second idea is the integrity of our relationship with G-d(4). G-d is always present, and at any moment we can engage and connect. Throughout our lives, we are in a continual mutual relationship that grows and shifts all the time. We can draw closer to G-d at any moment, through anything that we do. It doesn’t have to be overtly religious, or specifically Jewish. Being mindful and acting with purpose is a method that we can use to turn any simple act of daily life into an opportunity to build and maintain a deep and rich relationship.

When you eat-in-awareness of G-d the entire experience of eating is different. Your eating has purpose, it becomes a vehicle to elevate both your life and the food itself. Without focusing on, or changing, what you are eating, you have changed how you approach food. As you mindfully enjoy your meal, it is both a holy moment and enjoyable. This mindset counters the obsession with food that characterises compulsive overeating. Because you are not judging yourself based on what you choose to eat, the heavy moral tension disappears. This eases anxiety. For this reason, the Rebbe answered a correspondent who asked the Rebbe for advice for losing weight that what you eat is not as important as the reason why you are eating. Instead of you are what you eat, the Chassidic saying would be you are HOW you eat. The strength and urgency of cravings fade as your eating comes into balance This freedom from the compulsion to overeat is a true liberation and people see a huge improvement in their quality of life and their self respect. The burden of the shame and guilt that came from overeating is lifted.

[aside] What you eat is not as important as the reason why you are eating. [/aside]

Practically, there are a few strategies that are useful to promote this approach to eating. All are mentioned in Torah sources. Preparation for a meal is important, as it lends greater importance to the occasion. You should set the table and eat nicely as if you were hosting an important guest, even if eating alone. Pace of eating is important – you can’t be mindful if you are rushing, or gulping your food. Elevated conversation will lift up your meal, discussing Torah ideas or other spiritual matters is a powerful strategy to focus our awareness. Perhaps the main strategy for conscious eating is the pause before we eat. As you say your blessing over the food, or even for a minute or two before, pause and think of the spiritual meaning of food as discussed in this essay. You don’t have to close your eyes and no one has to know what you are doing, it takes only seconds. With this moment of reflection your entire eating will change. Your relationship with food will slowly, with practise, normalise, as eating becomes a pleasure that aids you on your soul’s journey to greater holiness.

There are two other approaches to eating that are somewhat similar to the Chabad Chassidus  concept of holy eating. The New York Times Bestseller diet book French Women Don’t Get Fat says there are two natures in each of us. One wants to be slim and healthy, and the other is all appetite. The key is to master and manage both. This is a similar model to Chabad chassidus. In Chassidus one nature is G-dly and the other driven by selfish desire, while the French view sees one as narcissistic and the other hedonistic. Guiliano’s approach to eating is balanced and sensible however the G-dly component is missing. It is only about staying at a healthy weight and will not elevate the whole person. The second approach, the modern mindful eating movement, teaches total concentration on the act of eating. Eating must be very slow and in silence in order to focus all your awareness on the physical sensations. This approach is successful at helping people break compulsive habits. However the long amount of time meals take makes it unsustainable as a regular practise, and the no talking rule is not great for friends and family. Its stated goal is to experience the greatest pleasure from eating, without a higher purpose tied into that. Thus it also is missing the G-dly aspect that is so central to the Chassidic approach, and to holistic personal growth.

The perspective of Chabad Chassidus on food is that our need for food reminds us that we are all reliant on G-d for existence. We acknowledge that regular food is just as miraculous as Mon and that it is really G-d who placed the power of nourishment into the food and therefore He is sustaining us. If we are mindful of these ideas as we eat then our eating brings us closer to G-d and is therefore holy. Awareness can change the nature of any action and we can use simple daily occasions like eating for spiritual growth. Mindful eating can rehabilitate a person’s relationship to food and mitigate the desire to overeat. This is a process that gets easier over time and simultaneously leads to personal growth for the whole person. Practically, eating with full awareness means you must prepare for it and sit down, and take a few moments before eating to direct your consciousness to the purpose of your eating. The importance is in how and why you are eating, not what you are eating.