July 23, 2008
Ancient sources yield health and diet wisdom
Two recent books -- "The Life-Transforming Diet" (Feldheim, 2007) and "The Jerusalem Diet" (Gefen, 2007) -- offer approaches intended to help Jewish dieters make changes in eating styles that would work in the evening as well as during the day.
Diet books don't often include approbations from rabbis, but they're appropriate for "The Life-Transforming Diet," a structured eating plan based on the writings of physician and Torah scholar Maimonides.
Adapting this 800-year-old diet, author David J. Zulberg presents a plan for long-term changes using the scholar's prescriptions for self-improvement.
Maimonides was uncannily accurate in many of his suggestions, including a focus on preventive medicine, reducing salt and red meat and adding daily exercise.
"Overeating is like poison to the body and it is the main cause of all illness," he wrote.
In addition to practical diet considerations during Sabbath meals, "The Life-Transforming Diet" offers useful information on nutrition, fat choices and Maimonides' views on red meat. ("Only eat meat if you are bored with chicken.")
His list of bad foods, from aged meat to moldy food, is remarkably similar to the American Institute for Cancer Research's list of foods to avoid. But some of the ancient advice doesn't always translate to a modern audience: "Sometimes I drink soup made from young roosters and then go to sleep."
And then there's the difference in lifestyle. In Maimonides' time, "daily life included physical labor which required a greater caloric intake. Today, people need to eat less to balance the energy equation. Unless you are a professional athlete, you just cannot eat that much," said Jodi Newson, director of nutrition services for Tower Hematology Oncology Medical Group in Beverly Hills.
Newson suggests that a book can help people make a change, but says that studies have borne out that it's also important for dieters to seek guidance from registered dietitians or support groups.
"A book cannot encourage you when you hit a plateau," she said.
Still, one can't go wrong with Maimonides' advice that "a person should eat only when he is hungry and he should drink only when he is thirsty."
"The Jerusalem Diet" doesn't address how to eat so much as "why" we eat.
Judith Besserman and Emily Budick refer to their plan as an "appetite for life" and employ guided imagery to unearth the reasons behind overeating.
Besserman, a practicing psychotherapist in Jerusalem and New York City, runs weight-loss groups based on guided imagery techniques adapted from Colette Aboulker-Muscat, a Jerusalem psychotherapist. Emily Budick is a professor of English at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The authors note that most people already use imagery in some form when trying to lose weight (i.e., visualizing a new outfit for an event). Besserman and Budick suggest using such imagery to understand our relationship to food, and then change habits to feed the "slimmer, healthier self" instead.
Simple exercises that involve breathing are used to identify the roots of eating patterns and to visualize your plate to determine whether the food is there for you to gain, maintain or lose weight.
Guided imagery "translates the stories of our life back into a language we can understand" so that dieters can take steps toward weight loss, according to the authors.
But turning to a book to learn guided visualization techniques might be a tall order.
One exercise, "The Moment After," is supposed to give the reader the feeling of satiety, as if you've eaten a chocolate bar. Even after the exercise, I still want the real thing.
"Visualization is not easy to do on your own. You may want to start with someone who can guide you," said Shelly R. Cohen, a Los Angeles psychotherapist in private practice.
Cohen says that visualization of a healthier self can lead to hopefulness, an important element to ensure effective change.
"It's always important to identify and address underlying problems that create an obstacle to weight loss, whether they be physical or psychological," Cohen said, adding: "Weight loss is tricky, and different things work for different people. Just find whatever works for you."
Tamar Sofer lives in Los Angeles and writes about nutrition and disease prevention.