I once heard of someone who wanted to lose weight but was having trouble laying off late night sweets. So what she would do is eat a little piece of meat at night and then she wouldn’t find it difficult to refrain from eating dairy desserts. This made me wonder why it would be easier to keep kosher than to diet. After all, the rewards for keeping kosher, if there really are any, are far less tangible and immediate than the rewards for losing weight. For most people, losing weight is almost certainly healthy and our society generally thinks that skinny people are more attractive than heavier ones. Compliments, such as “did you lose weight? You look great!” are common. “I heard you’ve successfully been avoiding eat milk after meat. Wow! Very impressive.” Not so much. Why would this woman, and probably many like her, find it impossible to break keeping kosher but exceedingly easy to ignore a diet?
I don’t think the answer is simply that fear of God is greater than fear of being overweight. While this might be true for some people, it’s not true for a lot of people I know who keep kosher more out of habit than out of any belief that God will punish them for breaking it. I suspect this woman’s diet “trick” would work equally well for a person whose “fear of heaven” is not an overwhelming force in their lives. They would be far more likely to cheat on a diet that they are convinced will improve their health and looks than eat something non-kosher.
So what can dietitians and those wishing to lose weight (for the sake of clarity and so that my mother won’t worry – I do not want to lose weight) or just in general eat more healthy learn from kashrut? I am going to suggest a few but I’d be happy if readers would pipe in with their thoughts as well. Here are my three possible answers for why kashrut is easier than dieting:
1: It’s set in stone
Kashrut has a defined list of what you can eat and what you can’t. It’s relatively simple (even if the nitty gritty laws get a bit complicated). What I would suggest this translates into is that a more effective diet doesn’t count calories, but gets rid of certain bad ones – basically simple sugars. I’ve often told people cut out the following four “horsemen of the apocalypse”: bread (not just white bread, all bread), pasta, refined sugar and potatoes. Another piece of advice I give is don’t drink any calories (except beer :)) This makes it a little more like the certainty of kashrut. The person who won’t eat dairy after a meat meal doesn’t really need to think, should I eat it this time, should I not? She just does it.
2: It’s forever
Keeping kosher is for life, dieting is seen as temporary. This is an important distinction. When one decides to diet, usually the idea is that you’ll diet now, lose weight and eat more again later. Or at least “go back to normal”. But no one I know decides to keep kosher for a short time–i.e. I’ll keep kosher now until Yom Kippur, then I’ll stop. Keeping kosher means you plan on doing so for life. If you want a diet to work, you can’t think that you’re going to make a temporary change. Of course this means that a diet cannot be so intolerable that it won’t be sustainable. A resolution to diet might mean to decide that for the next six months I’ll suffer a bit, be a bit hungry, so that I can really lose weight. And after that, I’ll find a sustainable balance of diet and exercise. But that “after that” period must be a commitment in one’s mind to do so forever. I know this is not easy, but the minute one says, “I’ll diet today so I can go back to my usual habits tomorrow” nothing will really be accomplished, just like keeping kosher today so that I can have a cheeseburger tomorrow doesn’t seem to make much sense.
3: It has taboos
Keeping kosher is highly habitual. I know people who really don’t practice much Judaism, who don’t believe in it all that much, and yet still keep kosher because that’s how they grew up. I grew up in a kosher and fairly observant home, but when I went to college I abandoned most aspects of Jewish practice (I returned to them after college). But I never even contemplated eating non-kosher food. The idea of eating pork or milk and meat or even non-kosher meat was simply revolting to me. Diets don’t work that way. People don’t develop an aversion to Cheetos. Coke doesn’t become a taboo. So somehow for a successful diet to work, one would have to turn unhealthy food into taboo foods. I’ve seen this happen with gluten, although I don’t recommend going gluten free unless you’re truly allergic to the stuff. It also happens with people who become vegetarian or vegan, although this won’t necessary cause weight loss. But maybe just thinking of certain foods (the four horsemen and drinks with calories) as taboo or as causing an allergic reaction might help. About ten years ago I decided we would never buy soft drinks (diet or otherwise) in our house again. I made them taboo and basically we don’t drink them at home (occasionally I will have one outside the house, a little like the phenomenon of keeping kosher in but not out of the house).
So, now it’s your turn: Why is it easy to keep kosher and hard to diet? And why, in general, are certain habits or resolutions easier for us to keep than others? Why does our resolve stand up strong against certain temptations but melt away like butter on a warm piece of toast against others?