Back in the day, when I was pumping what felt like gallons of breast milk for my infant son, I used to be thin — really thin. In fact, the super-fit New York City parents at my older daughter’s preschool would beg me to reveal the secret formula to my svelte figure.
“Don’t be so impressed,” I told a fellow mom who had the silhouette of Flat Stanley. “I have an appointment to get blood work done to make sure I don’t have some terrible health problem.”
Fortunately, my weight loss had more to do with nursing and my stressful job rather than any underlying endocrine issue (or worse). And now, nearly two decades later, my body is changing yet again, bringing with it hormonal fluctuations, weight gain, and sagging skin. No one is asking me for diet or fitness secrets anymore.
I tell you this because I know firsthand that being skinny does not always correlate with being disciplined in the kitchen or the gym. Clearly, it’s wonderful to be fit, to make our health a priority for our bodies, minds, and emotions. But with all of the New Year’s resolutions floating around at this time of year, it seems like the quest for weight loss and fitness has become something of an obsession.
In the past week alone, my best friend has removed all sugar from her diet. At my book club, which includes some of the brainiest women I know, a major topic of conversation involved the avoidance of lectins, a plant-based protein, which basically means no beans, no potatoes, and no tomatoes. Recently, celebrities like Jennifer Lopez publicly asked other famous folk to participate in a “10-Day Challenge,” in which caffeine, dairy, sugar, meat, carbohydrates, and even citrus fruits are eliminated.
And, hey, I applaud anyone who is trying to take charge of her health. I mean that. But, to be honest, I don’t really want to hear about it anymore.
If you have started to equate eating an orange with the ethical equivalence of torturing small animals, it’s time to get some perspective, friends. Just because you no longer eat white rice or flour does not mean that those of us who indulge in these grains are morally inferior. And if I want to find out more about your Keto diet, I’ll ask, thankyouverymuch. If you want to carve out 16 hours of the day for food-free fasting, go for it.
As fantastic as it is for humans to take charge of their fitness, there’s an ugly underbelly (pun intended) to this hyper-focus on the realm of the physical. Martin Luther King reminded us so eloquently that what matters most is the “content of our character.” When we are fixated on demonizing bananas and obsessing about drops of milk in our morning coffee, are we expending emotional energy that could be better spent on creative pursuits? Could we be more patient, loving parents, spouses, and family members if we didn’t feel that our self-worth were so wrapped up in the size of our pants?
As a rabbi, I think about the fixation so many Jewish people have with the fast on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the religious calendar. I detect macho bravado when hearing about the migraine headaches, the trembling hands, the long afternoon naps that become a necessity for some people to master the rule and tradition of fasting. The letter of the law is being adhered to, yet the spirit of self-reflection, kindness, repentance, and prayer may become secondary to a focus on the physical.
Thousands of years ago, the prophet Isaiah cautioned that God had no interest in a fast that involved contention and anger. The fast that Isaiah recommends involves sharing bread with the hungry, taking the wretched poor into our homes, clothing the naked, and not ignoring our own family members. It’s a lot easier to struggle with caffeine withdrawal than consider what to do with the homeless person sitting outside the subway who could use a hot bath and housing that is not a cardboard box.
So how about this for a 10-Day Challenge, folks? Let’s challenge ourselves to go 10 days without cursing, 10 days without yelling at our children (especially in the morning when they are moving at a snail’s pace and we have to get to school), 10 days without snapping at our partners or parents. I challenge us to 10 days of giving tzedakah to meaningful causes, 10 days of contacting our representatives to fight to end the government shutdown, 10 days of focusing on recycling and preserving our environment.
We can do this challenge sugar-free, lectin-free, nightshade-free, dairy-free or gluten-free. Or we can do this while we sip on full-fat, full-sugar, fully caffeinated iced mocha beverages. Let’s just get a little perspective and balance as the first month of the crazy new year draws to a close. Here’s to good health, good eating, good news, and hopefully plentiful portions of just plain goodness.