Dear Rachel,

One of the hardest things I’ve found about this quarantine is the fact that I have been gaining weight. I was already overweight and found it hard to diet, and now I gained 10 pounds and feel awful! Do you have any recommendations? I’m never able to stick to any diets and exercise plans.

Thanks,

Over and Above



Dear Above,

If misery loves company, then you’re in good company, if that’s any consolation.

First of all, this is nothing to feel guilty about. Hopefully, as freedom of movement is restored and we have less time to graze, you (and me and everyone else) will be able to shed those pounds, especially since summer is upon us, and we tend to be more generally active.

The truth is that it isn’t the diet or exercise plan that’s the variable. They all work more or less if you can stick to them. The thing to do is to choose the one that works best for you. King Solomon said, “Educate the child according to his way and when he grows old, he won’t veer from the path.” What King Solomon is saying is that we have to be taught good habits when we’re young—habits that are appropriate to our personality, and that includes eating habits. If you have enjoyed pizza, milkshakes and fries since youth, it’s going to be really hard to start eating greens and tuna salad. If your idea of exercise is a floatation mattress in a pool, then running a marathon is just not realistic.

But here’s the thing. We always, every minute, have a choice. And this is true of everything, not just eating. We can tell the truth or lie, we can be considerate or selfish, we can be industrious or lazy, we can do a mitzvah or refuse. And we can eat an extra slice of pizza or quit after two.

Food is tremendously spiritual. Food has sparks of holiness in it that we rectify every time we make a blessing over it. The whole Temple service revolved around food. Food is a great source of spiritual expression.

But it’s also tremendously paradoxical. It is one of the few things that is both necessary and pleasurable; the way we celebrate and the way we mourn; the way we express love to others and to ourselves; a kind of business and a kind of entertainment; both a mitzvah and a transgression. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find something so all-encompassing and so much part of our lives. So struggling to find the right balance, especially in a world pervaded with unhealthy food choices, is very challenging.

One of the ways that we balance our relationship with food is through all the commandments associated with food. And there are lots—what to eat, when to eat it, when not to eat, how to prepare it, how to dispose of it, what to say when you eat it. These commandments help us to relate to food in a disciplined, refined and appreciative way. But being mitzvah-observant alone doesn’t protect us from gaining weight. That’s where more self-discipline and choices come in.

So having failed at dieting many times myself, I can tell you that most don’t work for the long term, and exercise regimens peter out. What does work is committing every moment of every day to making better choices (in every area of our lives). As we get better at choosing well, we choose life.

No one changes their lives or their habits all at once or forever. It’s tedious, committed, consistent work. And thank G‑d, we live in affluence and abundance, and that gives us many choices. It also makes it all the harder. But every good, healthy, spiritual, self-disciplined choice makes the next one easier. That’s true whether you’re talking about a food choice or a moral choice because considering the consequences of your actions is deemed by our sages as wisdom. Each good choice gets us closer to realizing the inherent potential of our greatness, and though bad choices may set us back again, they don’t ruin everything (like an all-or-nothing diet).

So go for a brisk walk in a park and choose to do this regularly. You don’t have to give up pizza, just have fewer slices with more vegetables on top. And please don’t feel bad that you enjoy food; that’s why G‑d gave it to us. But keep Maimonides’ dictum about sticking to the golden mean in mind. He was also a doctor and he said to eat in moderation.

Wishing you good health and a good appetite!

Rachel