Excerpted from "THE LIFE-TRANSFORMING DIET" - based on health and psychological principles of Maimonides and other classical Jewish sources. Published by Feldheim Publishers.
Imagine for a moment a world where almost every disease can be prevented and most people enjoy long and healthy lives. If we were able to visit this idyllic world, we would probably try to absorb whatever we could of their lifestyle habits in order to emulate their successes in our own lives.
Unfortunately, we live in a very different world with frightening health statistics. More than half of the United States population is overweight or obese, and many suffer from resultant health complications. Eating disorders abound, and we are flooded with conflicting advice and false promises to attain our dream of health. Confusion seems to be the norm. Ours is a world in which optimum health levels seem to be out of reach.
One of the greatest Jewish scholars in history tackled these issues. He gives us the means to make this dream a reality. I am referring to Maimonides.
In no uncertain terms, and without the slightest hesitation, Maimonides writes the following mind-boggling guarantee to someone who follows his main principles of nutrition:
"Whoever conducts himself in the ways we have set forth, I will guarantee that he will not get sick throughout his life.... He will not need a doctor and his body will be in perfect shape and remain healthy all his life."
This assertion is found in Maimonides's magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah -- an authoritative legal work which is an essential part of the Jewish tradition...
In ancient medicine, prevention of disease and nutrition played a central role, as Maimonides writes:
"In the practice of medicine, the first and most important regimen is the one for the healthy, which insures that the existing state of health is not lost... An expert physician who wants to guard his patient's health begins by improving [the latter's] diet."
Maimonides's works are filled with health and nutritional advice. Besides his well-known chapter on health, he wrote ten major medical works, which include detailed discussions and explanations on health and nutrition...
Maimonides begins his famous chapter on health with the following advice:
"A person should eat only when he is hungry, and he should drink only when he is thirsty."
This sounds simple: We should listen to our bodies. However, we all know how hard this can be in practice. Our bodies have become used to bad habits, and consequently can no longer be relied upon to accurately read the cues. Our goal is to reinstate the integrity of our natural internal systems. Then, we will eat when we are hungry and stop eating before satiation occurs -- because that is what we do naturally...
Interestingly, Maimonides places his advice on maintaining health in a section of Mishneh Torah which discusses emotional development and personal improvement. Elsewhere, Maimonides writes explicitly that many of our bad food choices and bad eating habits originate from our learned perceptions. It is clear that Maimonides considered achieving optimum health as more than simply an issue of diet and exercise.
Most diets concentrate on the food itself with emphasis on outer results. After all, most people want to look better externally. The inner causative process is often ignored. But our external habits are the physical manifestations of inner motivational forces at work. Therefore, in order to achieve our aim of health and weight management, it is necessary to understand how our minds are involved in our eating habits. Then we will be able to create and cultivate positive eating and lifestyle habits and facilitate the achievement of our goals...
ANIMAL VERSUS HUMAN
Habit formation is not a phenomenon unique to man. Past experiences of animals also have an impact on them. Accumulation of impressions made on an animal's memory will eventually cause it to make "conscious" decisions. For example, a dog will change its direction and run toward a person who is playful, whereas it will run away from someone who angrily raises a stick against him. So what is the difference between the human mind and the animal "mind"?
An animal is only reactive, whereas a human being can also choose to be creative.
While it seems that animals "think," the progression of their "thoughts" is limited to reaction to external stimuli as well as immediate self-gratification and avoidance of pain or danger. Natural instincts or trained reactions determine an animal's every response. When faced with two opposing feelings simultaneously, the strongest feeling at that moment always prevails. An animal cannot calculate future consequences!
This "reactive mind" also factors very prominently in human beings, most notably when we are asleep. As Maimonides writes, while dreaming, different thoughts revolve in our minds and we can only react to them; there is no possibility of "creative" intervention. That is why we experience a confused collection of images and memories in our dreams.
When we are awake, our "reactive mode" is just as active but now it runs in the background. This is the Subconscious Accumulation Process. The major difference is that when we are conscious, we can also be creative. Our intellect has the ability to create and impose order because it is not dependent on external stimuli. It can direct the Subconscious Accumulation Process. We can choose how we will respond to any situation or experience instead of simply being a slave to our instinctive reactions. It is our intellect and power of discernment which makes us unique from the rest of creation. This is the essence of man.
Thus, a dynamic relationship is set in motion between instincts (i.e. the "reactive mind") and intellect (i.e. the "creative mind"). The potential clash or harmony between these two modes affects almost every decision we make. The "creative mind" has to learn to work with its partner, the "reactive mind." But whenever the intellect is not exerting its influence, then our thought process functions in much the same manner as that of an animal's -- our reactive mode is dominant.
This dynamic between creative and reactive responses plays itself out many times a day in our food habits. We can choose to initiate the creative process so that positive eating and lifestyle habits become second nature.
Alternatively, we can shortsightedly choose to react and continue giving in to all of our cravings, allowing bad habits to take control.
THE RIGHT PACE
When training an animal, a smart master strikes a balance between discipline and caretaking. He knows that if he overburdens the animal and restricts its provisions, the animal's health will be compromised and eventually it will try to attack him. On the other hand, if he pampers the animal, it will become lazy and eventually subjugate its master to fulfill its every whim. A delicate balance is required to condition and train the animal.
The intellect provides us with the ability to control our "animal spirit" -- the reactive mind. But like training an animal, real and permanent change requires a delicate balance between making outer changes and making inner changes. If change is too rapid, it will derail the Subconscious Accumulation Process. Therefore, if we really want to change then we have to move at the right pace.
Sadly, extreme, unnatural and "fad" diets are very popular. They pander to the illusive dream of the overweight person for an instant miracle solution that will cause excess weight to just disappear. Yet statistics show that extreme diets and radical initial phases of diets usually end in disappointment. You simply cannot fight human nature and its established habits for too long!
The following analogy illustrates this point further. It seems amazing that a bodybuilder can pick up very heavy weights. However, the bodybuilder conditioned himself step by step over time. Beginning with lighter weights, he has built his muscles up until they are able to lift extraordinarily heavy weights. Had he pushed himself too hard along the way, he could have injured himself. On the other hand, if he had been too lax, he would have seen no results. In order to see optimum results, he had to strike a balance between the two.
Similarly, if we really want to succeed in gaining health and losing weight, then we have to move at the right pace. This is the only way to unleash power of the Subconscious Accumulation Process.
There are other reasons why extreme or haphazard measures are bound fail in the long term. For one, an extreme program is devastating to both the physical and the emotional health of the body. As Maimonides writes:
"One's usual custom and habit is fundamental for maintaining health... One should not change his habits all at once, in eating, drinking or exercise... Changing one's habit all at once results in illness... It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other. Therefore, it is not possible according to the nature of man to suddenly discontinue everything to which he has been habituated... Human nature always likes that to which it is habituated."
Bad eating habits also differ from other bad habits such as smoking and alcohol consumption because it is impossible to go "cold turkey" from food. We encounter food much of the day, as we need it in order to survive. There is no way to simply give it up. So we constantly have to contend with a steady array of enticing foods and established bad eating habits.
For all these reasons, sudden or extreme measures do not work with food and eating habits in the long run.