The Diane Rehm Show interviewed the former head of the FDA, David Kessler who has just written a book entitled The End of Overeating. His thesis is that eating is a salient stimulus that is hardwired into our brains. It is not something we can unlearn, but we can create “new wiring” that will mitigate the unhealthy impulse to overeat. Eating is different than other “addictions” because we actually need to eat, unlike needing to smoke or drink alcohol.
In the middle of the interview, Kessler opined that people have to adhere to absolutes regarding unhealthy foods. One cannot hardwire a brain to eat some french fries. Once that door is opened, the old wiring takes over and three fries turn into thirty-three before one can murmur “supersize me”. In other words, you have to make french fries treif!
The Rambam argues, echoing the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot that one does not eradicate desire, but one can conquer it, channel it so that it serves a higher purpose. One can and should resist the impure impulses, but he doesn’t seem to think that it is possible to eradicate them. There will always be a struggle between what we want and what we should do, but it is a struggle where we believe we can prevail–most of the time.
The Hasidic masters believed that it was possible not only to conquer these desires but to transform them so completely that the desire was no longer there. Our souls can become so much closer to the Divine source that the base “natural” desires are no longer an impediment to reaching this potential.
The Hasidic rewiring allows for a new brain every Yom Kippur, while the Rambam encourages a new resolve for the old brain to behave better, and do what it has always been capable of, and always will be. He assumes that some people will need to engage in extreme denial for a period of time, but the goal is to get to the place where one moderates behaviors that are detrimental when overdone–like overeating.
Kessler says that may not be possible when it comes to compulsive eaters. They need to create new taboos in their head that will make them turn up their nose at those salient stimulators. In other words, those foods (and you know what they are) need to become as treif as bacon and elicit the same level of disgust. For those of us who have never partaken of certain foods, it is not difficult to refrain from eating them, but I am told by those who once ate them, but now don’t, that the desire lingers. It is just that they have rewired a new “taboo” that prevents them from going down that road.
The problem with applying a kashrut mentality to unhealthy foods is that these foods are more unhealthy for some than for others. There is less of an objective standard, but there is little argument that the world would be a healthier place without the provision of large portions of fat and sugar laden foods that are engineered for everyone to eat more than they should.
Kessler argues that just as tobacco went from being socially acceptable/desirable to being uncool, the same thing has to be done to certain foods as a first step. Many of the Jewish community have taken on the mantle of extending the definition of treif to unfair labor practices, industries that are ecologically insensitive, and the like. There has not been, however, the same outcry regarding industries that stuff our stomachs and psyches with murderous doses of sugar, fat, and salt in super-sizes. Isn’t this a more direct and immediate threat to our personal well-being? I mean, it’s killing us now–isn’t it?
It’s not likely that such a movement will emerge, nor is it necessarily desirable, but if one does wish to take control over these appetites, you might want to do what Kessler suggests, and for observant Jews, that means–make them treif!