Saturday night was the hardest – and I had no idea why.
I had already eaten two full meals earlier in the day, not to mention some snacking in between. I certainly wasn't hungry and I wasn't eating for the sake of Melava Malka (the traditional meal following the close of Shabbat).
But I just had to eat. I couldn't resist. The magnetism of the refrigerator was overwhelming; the lure of the leftovers too strong to withstand. As hard as I tried, I could not overcome the temptation to binge. Chicken or chulent, kugel or kishka, it didn't matter. I was all consumed by consuming it all.
I knew this behavior kept putting on the pounds -- 300 to be exact. But I couldn't stop.
I knew this behavior kept putting on the pounds -- 300 to be exact. But I couldn't stop. I knew the damaging effects it had on my physical health and emotional wellbeing; the frustration, turmoil and humiliation of not being able to control my eating. It didn't matter. The only thing I didn't know was why I could not stop.
My credibility suffered. Here I was, a rabbi, teaching fellow Jews the wisdom and beauty of Torah and mitzvot, encouraging them to incorporate Judaism as a priority in their lives, and I couldn't get a handle on my hamburgers.
For years, I tried to lose the weight. I did Weight Watchers, Atkins, and diet pills. I joined a gym and worked out incessantly; shot hoops and ran around the track. But the only ride that lasted was on the roller coaster of weight loss – down 20, up 30, again and again.
I had a productive and meaningful life; a wonderful wife and children – but no answer when it came to the weight. Until one day, in utter desperation, God blessed me with the gift of despair. I acknowledged I was a compulsive overeater, that I was truly powerless over food.
I was a slave to sugar and paralyzed by pizza. Quantity over quality often won the day. I could eat a whole bucket of fried chicken and still have room for the main course. I never bothered super-sizing because I always ordered in plural; two of this and three of that.
Like an alcoholic, I was helpless from taking that first compulsive bite. Addiction means being incapable of avoiding a substance or action, despite the known consequence and desire to withstand the temptation. Doing something harmful against my will.
I accepted the realization that nothing I could do on my own would work. I needed a complete overhaul of my attitude and behavior around eating. All my will power didn't stand a chance against the food.
It wasn't an easy pill to swallow. It was a huge slice of humble pie -- but the most important meal I've ever eaten.
I began attending a group fellowship focusing on recovery from compulsive eating. Besides my physical cravings and obsessions with quantities, I understood that I was using food as an emotional coping mechanism as well as a spiritual release valve. I found comfort in the cupcakes, solitude in the salami.
I discovered that my behavior with food was much more common than I thought. The latest statistics tell a sobering tale: 70% of Americans are overweight and more than 30% are obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity is quickly overtaking smoking as America's leading cause of preventable death and is now among the primary risk factors for heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes and even cancer. The World Health Organization identifies obesity as a pandemic and the "biggest unrecognized health problem in the world."
Not everyone who struggles with food is a compulsive eater. Many people can use a particular diet or weight-loss regiment to harness their behavior and lose the weight they want. For many others, however, it's like trying to ride a wild horse with no reins -- getting thrown off time and time again. I had plenty of bumps and bruises to prove it.
There is a fundamental difference between a regular "diet" and a recovery program for compulsive eating.
I learned that there is a fundamental difference between a regular "diet" and a recovery program for compulsive eating. A diet is primarily about weight. No matter how you package it, it means eating less or eating differently, and exercising more. Lose the weight and you've succeeded. Congratulations and have a nice life, unless we see you again when the weight comes back on – which happens more often than not.
It's not all that complicated. Weight loss is a multi-billion dollar industry, not because we're given hidden wisdom, before which was accessible only to a select few. But rather, because many of us are incapable of sticking with the plan for any extended length of time – because we're unable to institute a significant life change around our behavior with food.
Certain ingredients used in food production possess addictive tendencies – particularly sugar. Physical addiction can, and does, exist within the realm of food. For many of us, myself included, ingesting processed sugar in any form sparks an uncontrollable compulsion to eat more and more. My experience and observation is that the same holds true for flour products, like bread and rolls.
That's where a program for emotional, physical and spiritual recovery comes in. It's all about the food. It's not about the weight. More precisely, it's all about developing a healthy and consistent relationship with food. Weight loss is a benefit, not a goal. It's the wonderful consequence of using food in a normal way – to nourish, not to indulge; to satisfy and invigorate physical needs instead of medicating and suppressing emotional distress.
Let's face it: We've all got issues. Whether it's parents, children, spouses, bosses or friends, money, prestige, career, school or simply getting out of the front door each day, every one of us has things that can cause stress and anxiety.
My first meeting was on a Sunday morning. The room was almost filled and it was barely past 8 o'clock. The 100 or so people were as varied in their dress as they were in their backgrounds. The one commonality many shared, however, was a normal body size.
I was expecting a room full of people like myself: overweight, overwhelmed, timid and tired. I certainly wasn't the only one fitting my description; but we were outnumbered, if not outweighed, by a host of vibrant folks. One after another, they introduced themselves as food addicts or compulsive overeaters, sharing a five-minute synopsis into their experience in battling food addiction.
They had tried every diet or weight-loss program under the sun and even a few I never heard of: from seaweed to sewing your mouth shut. Freedom from the compulsion only came when they made a conscious decision to outsource their will and determination to their Higher Power, seeking strength, success and sanity around food.
Those ideas certainly resonated with me. I was a religious Jew working to have an active relationship with God, the infinite Creator and Sustainer of the universe. King Solomon in Proverbs (21:23) speaks about "guarding one's mouth and tongue." Maimonides explains that guarding one's tongue means to avoid gossip and speak only what's necessary; guarding one's mouth means to refrain from eating harmful foods, or from overeating.
Maimonides writes (Laws of Knowledge 4:15):
Overeating is like poison for anyone and it is the primary cause of illness. Most illnesses are caused either by harmful foods or overeating even healthy foods.
But I was not at a synagogue or any other religious service. I was in a lecture hall at a local hospital, attending a meeting for compulsive eaters, comprising people from all different faiths and religious commitments.
I began working the tools of the program such as attending regular meetings and finding positive outlets for my negative inclinations to overeat. I followed a suggested food plan that had me eating nutritiously for the first time in a long time. I learned to treat food for what it was – fuel for my body, and not for what it wasn't -- a clandestine friend who promised contentment and camaraderie, but never delivered.
It's all about regaining a healthy relationship with food, one day at a time.
Lo and behold it worked. I lost 110 pounds in a little less than a year by incorporating a fundamental attitude change -- it wasn't about losing weight. It was all about regaining a healthy relationship with food, one day at a time.
That was one of the key principles for my success. For many a time in the past, I couldn't even get a running start. I suffered interminably from the disease of "tomorrow." Tomorrow I'll start the diet. Tomorrow I'll do better. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow...
Tomorrow was too overwhelming. For me, tomorrow didn't just mean the next 24 hours. Tomorrow meant that I had to accomplish everything in one fell swoop. I had to begin a diet that would cause me to lose 100 pounds. In my mind, tomorrow was a counterfeit cure for my obesity, a promise of rapid weight loss demonstrated by the ads for the newest and greatest – always accompanied by the asterisk disclaimer of "results not typical."
Only upon coming into a recovery program did I finally get an answer: "Today" is the cure for the disease of "tomorrow." Focus on today and today only. Don't worry about the weight. Don't stress over having to lose 100 pounds. Take it one day at a time, one meal at a time even, and the results will take care of themselves.
This core idea that we are powerless today over the end results of tomorrow is critical in helping reframe our mindset about compulsive overeating.
For the first several months, my mind would often wander toward the thoughts of never again being able to eat pizza or fried chicken, two staples of my addictive eating. I'd feel sorry for myself and start to question my resolve. Until I'd catch myself and realize I only had to avoid those foods for today.
The first few weeks I had bouts of hunger. After all, I was significantly reducing my intake of protein and fat. But my body quickly adapted. I was eating fruits and vegetables on a daily basis for the first time in my life, in addition to moderate servings of protein and grains. My portions were healthy, certainly sufficient to nourish and sustain.
And I was actually eating breakfast. That was the biggest miracle of all. I woke up with an appetite each morning instead of bloated and distended. I enjoyed my meals and paced them throughout the day: breakfast no later than 9 a.m., lunch between 12 to 1 and dinner around 6. Snacks, which for me were often compulsive acts and what I call "mood" eating, were no longer part of my day. My lunch had to be sufficient enough to carry me over to dinner. If the compulsion for binging at night started creeping in, I did something radical -- go to sleep.
Satiation from Hunger
The fact that my wife, Zakah, was also successfully recovering from her struggles with compulsive eating provided me with a constant example of strength and willingness which I strove to emulate. She was a lifelong struggler, having joined Weight Watchers at 8 years old. Now she's lost 125 pounds -- and kept it off for the last six years. She is a true role model for me and many others.
As my recovery and weight loss progressed, I tried on a daily basis to outsource my governance over food to God, allowing Him to do for me what I could not do for myself. And that's why, more than five years later, I have maintained a 110-pound weight loss. One day at a time.
As a rabbi, I know that this problem affects our Jewish community as much as the general population. We have to look no further than our eating behavior at Shabbat meals, kiddush tables and weddings to honestly ask ourselves if this is how God really wants us to observe these occasions. Picture Maimonides, one of Judaism's quintessential thinkers, authors and leaders in the following scenarios: standing in a tea room in a hotel during Passover, or at the end of a smorgasbord -- or watching our children indulge in the proliferation of candy, soda and junk food at school, synagogue and community events.
Zakah and I have created an organization, Soveya (Hebrew for satiation from hunger), specifically to raise awareness about compulsive eating and obesity in the Jewish community, and the urgent need to address the situation. We know firsthand how difficult it is to regain a healthy relationship with food, to lose the weight as well as the daily obsession. We encourage people to seek out solutions that work for them, including fellowships focusing on overeating.
Our goal is to bring these crucial issues to the forefront of discussion and action in the Jewish community, and at the same time help people get a better sense of what, for many of us, is among the most difficult challenges we face -- establishing a healthy relationship with food.
In addition, Soveya provides confidential counseling for individuals and families who have found frustration and failure with other diet and weight-loss programs. We have crafted an approach based specifically on Torah principles for self-growth and healthy eating, combined with proven tools adapted from recovery programs for compulsive behaviors.
As well, we have developed a Wellness Campaign for Jewish Day Schools, in which we seek to partner with parents and teachers to implement educational strategies and provide practical tools in helping create an improved wellness environment both at home and in the school.
(An abridged version of this article originally appeared in Binah magazine) .