When I was growing up, my grandmother would play a game with me. If I finished all the food on my plate, I would become a member of “The Clean Plate Club.” The reward for joining this elite club? Dessert. If I was lucky, it was my grandfather’s famous pecan pie with chocolate chips.
I grew up learning that meals end when your plate is clear, not when you are full, and no matter how much you eat (or, perhaps, precisely because of how much you ate) there was always room for dessert. My lifelong trouble refraining from eating when I am no longer hungry has contributed to my lasting struggles with my weight.
Many Americans share similar approaches to eating. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the average American adult consumes about 2,700 calories per person per day, which is several hundred calories more than active, healthy weighing adults ought to consume. Those extra calories, unless burned off with proper exercise, can lead to gaining about a pound each week. Between the years 1970 and 2000, Americans’ average daily calorie intake increased by about 500 calories. Not surprisingly, this time period roughly corresponds to the rise of this country’s obesity epidemic, which today is one of America’s top killers.
In the first blog of this series, I argued that the Torah offers an approach that might help stem the tide of the American obesity epidemic; or that might, at the very least, help you and me be healthier and avoid obesity along with its related diseases. I called this the “Deuteronomy Diet” because I derived it from Deuteronomy 8:10: “You shall eat, you shall be satisfied, and you shall give thanks…” In my last piece, I claimed that this passage teaches us to eat real food, and mostly plants. This instruction alone, of course, is not enough. Even if we ate all the right foods, we would still be at risk for obesity and its related diseases if we ate too much of them.
That is why the verse also teaches, “You shall be satisfied.” True, classically, these words have been interpreted to mean that the land of Israel would yield enough to provide for our ancestors’ needs. But I also read this as a commandment that we should not eat beyond satiety.
Eat less, avoid obesity. This likely is not an earth-shattering revelation to most people. Most of us intuitively know that the more we eat, the more weight we are likely to gain. The real challenge is how to eat less. Here, the Jewish tradition offers us some useful guidance. And just in time for the holidays.
First, because the verse connects instructions about what we are supposed to eat with a command to control our calorie intake, it teaches that if we make good choices regarding what to eat, we will be better able to eat healthy quantities of it. Real foods – like whole grains, fruit, and vegetables – tend to make us fuller faster, while processed foods tend not to. It takes fewer calories worth of carrots to fill you up than Big Macs.
Second, the verse teaches us to train ourselves to be guided by our stomachs. Most of us make eating decisions with our eyes or with our tongues. We eat until we no longer see food on our plate, or until we no longer enjoy our food’s taste.
My wife has been my teacher in this regard. I used to wolf down my food, barely looking up between bites, not stopping until my plate was clear. As a result, I was never quite sure what “full” felt like. I knew it was somewhere between “hungry” and “so stuffed you need to unbutton your pants,” but it was always elusive. On the other hand, my wife eats slowly, taking small bites and savoring each one. By doing this, she has time to identify her point of fullness and stop eating when she reaches it.
It turns out that my wife’s eating style reflects ancient wisdom (one of many examples of her perspicacity). The great medieval sage Maimonides said that eating this way is central to a virtuous life. In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides instructs, “A person should only eat when he is hungry… and he should not eat until his belly is stuffed. Rather, he should stop eating when he is three-quarters full” (Laws of Virtues 4:1-2). By stopping before one feels full, one enables his/her brain to receive signals from the stomach about how full it is. When our brains realize this, we become dissuaded from continuing to pick up the fork for another bite.
Some Japanese peoples have a very similar practice, which they call “hara hachi bu” (meaning “belly 80 percent full”). Those who practice hara hachi bu consume several hundred calories less per day than Americans, and are four times as likely to live to their 100th birthday.
Americans eat too much, and our overeating is killing us. The Deuteronomy Diet invites us to save our lives by knowing how to eat less.