Avraham ben Yaakov
7 Food and Diet
"The Tzaddik eats to satisfy his soul" (Proverbs 13:25)
"Excessive intake of food is like poison to the human body and is the root cause of many illnesses. Most of the illnesses that strike people are caused either by bad foods or because people fill their stomachs with too much food, even when the foods are good. As King Solomon said in his wisdom: "One who guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles" (Proverbs 21:23) - in other words, when he guards his mouth from eating bad foods or from overeating, and his tongue from speaking unnecessarily." (Rambam, Hilchos De'os 4:15)
"The main work of the doctors should be in the area of food and drink: to warn people what to avoid, and to give instructions about what to eat." (Ramban on Leviticus 26:11)
Good nutrition is one of the main foundations of physical and mental health. The body needs food to survive. Food is also the fuel of the mind and soul. Without food, the soul cannot remain in the body. The food we eat, and how we eat it, have a decisive influence on our health and the quality of our lives.
All our physical needs are provided by God, "in Whose hand is the soul of all living". Yet within the limitations of the halachah, God leaves us free to choose what we eat and how we eat it. The responsibility for our health and the quality of our lives is to a large extent in our own hands.
This a test! Adam's test was also in the realm of eating: he was forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Because of his sin, he was condemned to eat by the sweat of his brow and eventually to die. Until today we have to make amends for Adam's failure. One of our tasks in life is to develop self-discipline in the way we eat: to choose healthy foods, and to eat them in the right way. This is our part in protecting our health and enhancing our life expectancy.
Taking care over what and how we eat is an inseparable part of the mitzvah of "Guard your souls", a mitzvah which is essentially about protecting ourselves from danger. Good nutrition not only prevents disease. It is also vital for healthy bodily and mental functioning and an overall feeling of wellbeing.
Poor nutrition is a danger to health. Prosperity has brought with it an abundance of food products that are rich in fats, sugars and artificial additives. The average daily diet is the cause of many health problems, especially obesity. Health experts attribute many cases of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis and other illnesses to poor diet. It can also cause many other physical and mental problems, including skin problems, allergic reactions, fatigue, tension, poor mental functioning, attention deficit, depression and behavioral problems.
In the wider world, the main emphasis in nutrition is on the components of the diet: what is healthy, what is unhealthy and what can cause harm. The outstanding Torah commentator Ramban (Nachmanides) bears this out in his comment that the main role of the doctor for Torah-observant Jews should be to give clear advice about what is healthy to eat and what is not.
More than this, it is impossible to provide a Jewish perspective on healthy nutrition without touching on the many mitzvos that are bound up with food. The Torah gives us detailed laws relating to all aspects of the growing and preparation of food, avoidance of forbidden foods, koshering meat, separating meat and milk, and so on. The Torah also gives us guidance about the actual eating of food, including washing the hands before bread, recital of blessings before and after eating, manners ("Derech Eretz"), Torah study and discussion during the meal. For the Jew, eating is an act of service and a way of coming closer to the Creator of the World. Eating and drinking are a central feature of Jewish life in the celebration of Shabbos (Kiddush, the three meals), on festivals (matzah on Pesach, eating in the Succah, feasting on Purim, etc. These mitzvot invest the eating of the Jew with sanctity and bring blessing into the food as it is digested and absorbed into his body.
"And you shall serve HaShem Your God, and He will bless your bread and your water, and I will remove illness from within you" (Exodus 23:25).
Educating children in healthy nutrition
In the early years of life, healthy nutrition has a decisive influence on physical and mental growth and development, short-term and long term. All parents want the best for their children: so too in the area of nutrition. We try to feed our children in the best way possible. But feeding them well is not enough. As they grow, we must teach them good eating habits and explain the basic rules of healthy nutrition. With G-d's help, the education we give them will save them from many physical, mental and emotional problems and benefit them for many long years of good health and strength.
The best way to get the message across is by showing a good example. The food we eat at home and the way we eat it are the foundation of the children's education in good nutrition. We have an obligation to teach our children good eating habits just as we teach them to wash their hands before bread, to recite the blessings before and after food and to eat the Shabbat and Yom Tov meals.
We insist on kashrut of food without compromises. When we teach our children which foods are permitted and what is forbidden, we are also helping them develop self-discipline in eating. We must also teach them what foods are good for the body and what can cause harm. It is also desirable to give children a basic understanding of how the body's digestive system works to process the food, absorb the nutrients and expel the waste products. The purpose of this training is to prepare the children for the stage when they will have to make their own decisions about what and how to eat.
The urgency of nutritional education today
There has always been a natural human tendency to prefer foods that are tasty even when they are not the most healthy. The sophistication of contemporary food production and marketing makes the daily struggle with temptation harder than ever because of the abundance of appealing food products on the shelves of supermarkets, bakeries, snack and fast food stores, at simchahs and so on. Food manufacturers are primarily interested in persuading consumers to buy their products, which are often very attractive and appetite-whetting. But they are not always healthy, and some may even be harmful.
The battle against temptation is especially fierce when parents want to teach their children good nutrition. How is it possible to train children to eat a healthy diet when practically every day they are exposed to all kinds of candies and snack foods in peklach the receive when they go to Shul, on birthdays in the school or Cheder, at Siddur and Chumash parties, at simchahs and the like? What child is able to keep himself from eating the candies he has just been given when all his friends around him are already eating theirs? Can we ask the child at least to keep the candy until after his meal? Adults find it hard enough to resist temptation. How can children be expected to resist them, when the packaging, advertising, free gifts and "special offers" are directed straight at their soft hearts!
Are parents supposed to "have pity" on their children and allow them to eat all the sweets and candies they want knowing they cause harm? Or should parents insist that their children eat only what is healthy, thereby putting them in an impossible position when all their friends are eating snacks and candies? How many times do parents give in after unremitting nagging by their children for something sweet? All too often the parents themselves are under pressure to find something to occupy the children or to stop them crying, and find a solution in giving them sweets and candies?!?
In practice, it is usually too much to expect that we can wean ourselves completely from unhealthy foods. Indeed, the truth is that as long as our daily diet is based on healthy, nutritious foods, it is not too bad if we occasionally eat less healthy foods for pleasure. As parents who want the best for our children, we must make every effort to provide them with a diet based on healthy foods, and we must teach them the importance of these foods. We must teach them that sweets, candies and similar snack-foods are not an alternative to healthy foods. They are a pleasant extra on special occasions, and even then, they should not be eaten to excess.
We, the parents, must be convinced of the importance of good nutrition, and we should learn and practice the basic principles. This is our main part in developing our children's awareness of good nutrition. Combined efforts by parents and teachers can make this work much easier.
It's not so hard
The rules of good nutrition are not as complicated or as limiting as they may seem. As soon as we start getting used to a new, improved diet, we will find that we have exchanged old pleasures for new ones, and our general feeling will undoubtedly improve. When we try to change eating habits, we are likely to encounter some difficulties. We should remember that what suits others may not necessarily be suitable for us. Each person must find the diet that suits him or her personally, and allow time to get used to it. We should not let ourselves become confused by the welter of the conflicting nutritional advice we hear. The basic rules of good nutrition are very simple:
The main food groups
Different kinds of foods contain different combinations of nutrients and other beneficial substances. No single food can supply all the nutrients required by the body in the necessary amounts. Nutritionally, the different kinds of foods fall into six main groups. To provide the body with a good balance of nutrients and other healthful substances, choose a variety of foods from within and across the different food groups:
Foods from the first group (bread and grains) together with those from the second and third (vegetables and fruits) make a sound basis for healthful diets. Choose a greater proportion of your foods from these groups. Eat more moderate quantities of foods in the milk and dairy group and of those in the meat, fish, eggs, beans and nuts group. Choose sparingly foods that are high in facts and sugars, for a diet that is excessively high in fats and sugars is a sure recipe for obesity, health problems and serious illnesses. Remember that many of the dishes you eat may contain foods from more than one group, such as soups or stews containing meat, beans, noodles and vegetables.
Bread and grains
Bread, grains (wheat, barley, oats, etc.) rice, pasta and other grain-based foods are a vital, positive source of energy for the body. All these foods contain carbohydrates, the "fuel" of the body. There are two types of carbohydrates: "complex" carbohydrates, as contained in the foods in this group, and "simple" carbohydrates, such as those in sugar. When the body receives simple carbohydrates in the form of candies, sweetened drinks and the like, the sugar is quickly absorbed into the blood, providing a fast, but temporary, boost of energy. The bodily immediately works to lower and balance the sugar levels in the blood, and as a result there is likely to be a quick, sharp drop in bodily energy, giving rise to cravings for more sugar to boost the energy again. And so the cycle continues. The advantage of foods from the group of grains and cereals is that they contain complcarbohydrates that are released into the body at a steady rate, keeping energy levels stable. This in itself gives a feeling of satisfaction, reducing overeating and food cravings between meals.
To increase the nutritional value of foods in the grains and cereals group, it is worth trying to use more grains in their natural form, such as whole wheat, whole oats, brown rice as well as baked products and pasta made of whole-grain flour. Grains in their husks are low in fats and rich in vitamins and dietary fiber, thereby helping reduce cholesterol and high blood sugar levels as well as aiding the movement of food through the digestive tract and the elimination of waste. (Note that grains must be carefully checked for worms and insects before use.)
Vegetables and fruits
Fresh vegetables and fruits are a most important component of the diet. They are especially rich in vitamins, minerals and other substances vital for healthy functioning and building of the body's immunity to illness. Vegetables and fruits provide complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber, giving energy and promoting healthy functioning of the digestive tract.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are a better choice than candies and snack foods when there is a need to eat between meals. Parents themselves will benefit from getting into the habit of eating fruits and vegetables when they want a snack, and they should teach their children to do the same.
Today pesticides are widely used in the cultivation of fruits and vegetables, which should be washed thoroughly before eating. Fruits and vegetables must also be checked carefully for worms and insects.
Milk and dairy products
Milk and dairy products (such as cheese, leben, yogurt, etc.) provide vital nutrients for the body, including protein and vitamins. They are especially important because of the rich supply of calcium they contain. Calcium is vital in the building of healthy bones, muscles and teeth, etc. and the prevention of osteoporosis. Everyone needs calcium, but it is especially important for babies, growing children and adolescents, all of whom need adequate supplies of calcium for healthy growth and development. Recent studies show that low bone density has become a widespread phenomenon among teenagers, and parents are advised to ensure that teenagers receive adequate calcium in their diet.
While the nutritional value of milk products is high, their proportion in the overall diet should be lower than that of foods in the grains, vegetables and fruits groups. Excess consumption of dairy products that are high in fat should be avoided. Dairy products that are high in added sugar should be reserved for special occasions.
Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds
The main importance of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds in the diet lies in the fact that they provide protein, essential in building the cells of the body and vital to overall healthy functioning. The proportion of foods from this group in a healthy diet should be less than that of grains, vegetables and fruits. But remember that an adequate supply of proteins is especially important for babies, children and adolescents. When the diet includes meat or poultry, it is preferable to use those parts of the animal or bird that are lower in fat. Likewise eggs should not be eaten to excess as they have a high cholesterol content.
Worms and insects are frequently found in nuts, seeds, beans and the like, and they should be carefully checked before use.
Fats and Sugars
The body needs fats and sugar - in the right amounts. Most basic foods -- grains, fruits and vegetables, meat, fish and dairy -- contain fats, sugars or both in various forms. Meat contains fat, milk contains fat and sugar, fruits, vegetable and grains contain sugars. A good, basic daily diet can provide all the sugar and fats the body requires without any need for the added sugar and fats contained in many man-made foods.
Yet it is human nature to love rich, sweet foods. Throughout history, people have sought ways of satisfying this desire over and above what the body needs. Satisfaction of this desire is one of the main foundations of much of the food industry, which in our technological age has grown to gigantic proportions, using the most sophisticated methods of food production and marketing to appeal to consumers' palates. How healthy are all these food products?
Many of the foods and drinks filling the shelves of supermarkets, bakeries, snack and fast food stores, etc., contain high quantities of added fats and sugars. Sometimes this may be fairly obvious, but in other cases the added fat and sugar content may not be apparent to the average consumer. Much of the food we prepare at home -- fried foods, cakes and biscuits, desserts, etc. -- are not exactly low in fats and sugars!
The problem begins when the extra fats and sugars become a regular component of the daily diet. When the body receives more of these nutrients than it can us, bodily balance is upset. This can express itself in different ways. Excess fat intake leads to all the problems of overweight and high cholesterol in the blood, which thickens artery walls and causes heart disease. Cycles of excessive sugar intake followed by cravings for more sugar may lead to diabetes as well as causing other problems. Excess fat and sugar in the diet can interfere with the body's ability to absorb important vitamins and minerals (including calcium) even when the diet is rich in these nutrients. This is a particular problem in the case of children and teenagers in various stages of development.
The obvious conclusion is that excess consumption of fats and sugars is the leading cause of some of the most serious health problems and illnesses in our time, such as heart and arterial disease, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis and other degenerative diseases. In order to protect ourselves and avoid these problems with God's help, we should make every effort to base our daily diet on foods in the grain, vegetable and fruits groups while limiting consumption of foods with a high fat and sugar content.
We must understand -- and we must teach our children -- that there is a difference between the foods we eat to keep healthy, which must be the basis of our daily diet, as opposed to the foods we eat mainly for pleasure, which should be reserved for special occasions.
"And you shall Shabbos a delight" (Isaiah 58:13). It is a mitzvah to honor Shabbos and festivals with special foods and drinks -- "to delight with pleasures. with all kinds of tasty foods. fragrant wines, dainty treats." (from the Shabbos Zemiros) -- in order to delight the body and soul. It is a good idea to reserve eat the richer, sweeter foods for Shabbos, festivals, celebrations and other special occasions. And even then, we shouldn't overdo it!
Salt is needed by the body in limited quantities in order to maintain fluid balance and stabilize blood pressure. Salt improves and enhances the taste of food, but for this very reason it is easy to cross the red line in salt consumption. Many artificial and processed foods have a high salt (or sodium) content. Health experts consider the salt content of the average diet to be considerably higher than necessary. Excessive consumption of salt can cause high blood pressure.
Vitamins and food supplements
Vitamins, minerals and other food supplements may have a role to play in certain cases of nutritional deficiency. However, man-made supplements cannot provide the basic daily nutrients our bodies need in the same balanced way as our food. Normally, people who eat a healthy diet that includes a variety of foods from the main food groups in the proper quantities should not need to take food supplements on a regular basis. A doctor or nutritionist can advise when supplements are needed.
What to drink
Water has a role in all our main bodily processes. Water is the main component of our blood and all our other bodily fluids. Water plays a vital role in digesting our food and bringing nutrients to all the cells in our bodies. Likewise, water places a crucial role in the removal of waste products from the body, in overall metabolism, rethe heat of the body and other important functions. The body cannot survive without water!
Our bodies lose water constantly through breathing, in the form of sweat, in the urine and stools, etc. To maintain the balance of fluids in the body, it is necessary to replace this lost water by drinking. Many of the foods we eat, especially fruits and vegetables, contain water, but the quantities are normally insufficient to supply all the body's needs. This is why it is important to drink as well.
The healthiest drink of all is water itself. Milk and fruit juices are healthful, but should not be relied upon as the main source of fluid intake. Sweetened drinks, colas and the like must not be allowed to take the place of water in supplying fluids. Excessive consumption of such drinks is harmful. Excess consumption of coffee and other caffeine-containing beverages is also harmful.
As parents we have an obligation to teach our children not to ignore feelings of thirst and to drink enough to meet the needs of the body. This applies particularly after intense physical activity and in hot weather. Children should be taught about the dangers of fluid deficiency and dehydration, and that these can be avoided by drinking sufficiently, avoiding extended periods of exposure to the sun and wearing proper clothing.
Good eating habits
"A person's table is his altar of atonement" (Berachos 55a)
At the center of the Jewish home, a miniature sanctuary, stands the table, which our sages compared to the Temple altar. In the Temple, items from the animal, vegetable and inanimate world became sacrifices, "A fire offering, a pleasing savor to HaShem" (Leviticus 1:9). In our very homes we have the power to elevate the food we eat to the level of a sacrificial offering when we sanctify the strength it gives us to the service of God, study of His Torah, prayer and performance of the mitzvos. This applies every day and especially when we eat on Shabbos and festivals. Washing our hands, saying the blessings before and after the food and conducting ourselves in the proper manner during meals turn the physical eating of the Jew into an act of holy service.
"At first the Children of Israel were like chickens pecking in the garbage, until Moses came and gave them fixed mealtimes" (Yoma 75a). This and other sayings of our Sages underline the importance of eating regular meals. Regular meals correctly spaced through the day and based on the main food groups in the proper proportions supply the body with the proper nutrients at the proper times for optimal, healthy functioning. Regular, balanced meals, give a feeling of satisfaction that reduces the need to eat between meals. The rabbis placed particular emphasis on Pas Shacharis, a morning breakfast of bread or grains. This provides a steady supply of energy and contributes to sound bodily and mental functioning.
When planning children's diet, it is essential to remember that they are growing and developing, and their nutritional needs are different from those of adults. Children's stomachs are smaller and more delicate, and they need smaller meals at more frequent intervals. For the same reason they should not be prevented from eating between meals. When children need to eat between meals, it is preferable to give them fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds etc. rather than candies and the like.
As they grow older, children should be taught to eat the foods that provide the main nutrients they need during their regular meals. Parents should make every effort to provide nutritious, tasty meals so as to reduce the need for "extras", especially candies, between meals.
The parental responsibility to keep watch over what their children are eating does not end when they enter puberty and advance into their teen years. Quite often it is precisely at this age that problems of excess weight begin to develop, and these may present serious health threats later on. Such problems are increasingly widespread among students who study for long hours with limited opportunities for physical activity. Parents of children with an inclination to excess weight should seek ways of helping them find the proper balance between adequate nutrition and physical activity.
At the table
Education in Derech Eretz and good table manners should be an inseparable part of children's education in proper eating habits. For a Jew the purpose of eating is not merely to keep the body alive. The essential purpose is to serve G-d. It is not enough to eat healthy foods. We must be aware that our food is provided by God, "Who sustains the whole world with grace, kindness and mercy." We must behave appropriately when we eat at the table of the King! The mitzvos we perform, the blessings we recite and our manners and behavior when we eat, together with the healthy food, turn the physical function of eating into an act of holy service. In the merit of this service, we will turn our table into an altar and see in our own lives fulfillment of God's promise that "He will bless your bread and your water, and remove illness from among you".
Chapter 8: Physical Activity and Exercise
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HEALTH AND HEALING
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