The 'Deuteronomy Diet': A Jewish guide to eating right
For part one in a three-part series, Rabbi Michael Knopf explains how lessons in Jewish law can help us break free of our poisonous American diets.
Any religious tradition worth its salt, as I have argued in the past, must offer a pathway for adherents to flourish. For Jews, this means that we ought to expect our tradition to successfully help us navigate real world, real-life concerns. One of those concerns that many Americans face is our health - particularly our diet.
The American obesity epidemic is well documented. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 percent of the American adult population struggles with obesity, and more than one third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. This is not simply a cosmetic concern; obesity dramatically increases an individual’s risk for heart disease, type-2 diabetes, stroke, and cancers. Obesity-related illnesses are now among the top killers of Americans.
Yet obesity, along with the diseases linked to it, is largely preventable. Making healthier choices, including eating better, can help save us from obesity and its related ailments. On the other hand, our diet can literally have a hand in killing us or saving us from death.
The Jewish tradition offers a path to healthy living. It affirms that God loves us and wants us to live long, healthy lives. The Torah adjures us to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19), to make decisions that will enable us to live better, longer, and more fully. More helpfully, the Torah backs this imperative with useful guidelines to enable us to fulfill it.
Take, for example, Deuteronomy 8:10, which teaches, “you shall eat, you shall be satisfied, and you shall give thanks to the Holy One your God for the good land which God has given you.” The classical Jewish tradition reads only one of the verbs in this verse, “bless,” as a commandment, and derives from it the obligation to recite the birkat hamazon, the blessing following a meal, an expression of our gratitude for the bounty we were privileged to enjoy. But the other verbs in this passage, “eat” and “be satisfied,” also may be read as commandments. Indeed, all three verbs are essential elements of what I call “The Deuteronomy Diet.”
The Deuteronomy Diet is a three-pronged solution that, if followed (ahem) religiously, will help us break free of our poisonous American diets, avoid obesity (with all of its related complications) and, generally, live better. I will break down the Deuteronomy Diet’s three component parts – eating, being satisfied, and being grateful – into three separate articles so I can carefully explain each element. In this piece, I will discuss the first verb, to “eat.”
This commandment guides what we should eat and how we should approach the whole business of eating in the first place.
We Americans tend not to eat food so much as we ingest it as medicine. We have been taught that what matters in food, what will make us healthy or unhealthy by eating it, are the nutrients it possesses. Food, then, becomes merely the delivery system for protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, etc., and the act of eating becomes an act akin to pill-counting: our plate should have a little more of this nutrient, a little less than that nutrient, and, voila, we will live long and healthy lives.
One of the results of this is that it has driven us to eat more processed, packaged foods. After all, if a food is processed and put in a package, the package can tell us how much it contains of a particular nutrient we want. The problem is that food producers are eager to advertise just how “healthy” a packaged product is by emphasizing the good nutrient or two it contains in large volume, while deliberately obscuring the unhealthy aspects of the item. The Cocoa Puffs box screams about its whole grain goodness and riboflavin while hiding its massive quantities of unhealthy sugar.
So, ironically, as we have become a society more preoccupied with health and nutrition than any other in history, our thirty-year experiment in eating this way has made us fatter and less healthy. We’ve been taking our medicine, but, unbeknownst to us, we’ve been swallowing it along with heaped spoonfuls of poison. So the Deuteronomy Diet comes to teach us, as Michael Pollan, author of “In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto” (Penguin Press, 2008), puts it, that we ought to “eat food,” not ingest nutrients.
For this reason, a related aspect of the Deuteronomy Diet’s command to “eat” is to eat mostly plants, just as it is one of Pollan’s eating rules. This comes from the imperative’s context. Our verse comes amid a passage describing the bounty of the Land of Israel. Just before they are told to “eat,” the ancient Israelites are told what they will (and what we ought to) be eating when they enter the Promised Land: it is “a land of wheat and barley, of grapes, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olives and dates.”
Our ancestors were taught that the ideal diet consists primarily of whole grains, fruit, and vegetables. May the Israelites eat processed food-like substances? May they eat meat? Sure, no prohibition is offered. But our tradition’s ancient wisdom favors eating real, earth-grown, whole foods.
The Jewish tradition’s guidance is corroborated by contemporary science: Whole grains, fruit, and vegetables are, without question, the best foods for humans to eat, and our diets should consist of them principally. Research has shown that vegetarians or near-vegetarians (when they mainly eat real, unprocessed, whole foods) tend to be much healthier than carnivores.
Pollan argues that our cultural norm is to eat “lots of meat and processed foods, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything,” the result of which has been obesity and illness. The Deuteronomy Diet offers a corrective path, guiding us to eat real food and mostly plants, helping us choose life.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and a Clal - Rabbis Without Borders fellow.