Cholent on Shabbat day. Brisket on Rosh Hashanah. Matzah balls and challah – lots of challah. Jews love food, and much of Jewish culture centers on sitting around the holiday table together, sharing stories and a meal.
“The Rambam [Maimonides] advises that we recognize that which is permitted to us and put boundaries around that,” explains Rabbi Eli Glaser, a certified nutrition, wellness and weight management consultant who founded Soveya, a health and wellness consulting company.
“Surrendering to self-indulgence and gluttony – even within that which is technically permissible – is considered degenerate with the permission of the Torah,” he said.
A report published in 2013 by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington found that the highest proportion of overweight and obese people – 13 percent of the global total – live in the United States, a country that accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population. A 2005 study by the Israel Center for Disease Control found that obesity rates in Israel are high, too, and becoming comparable with those in the United States.
Glaser, who himself embarked on a weight-loss journey about a decade ago to lose 125 pounds, is among a growing number of Jewish individuals who are tackling health and wellness – particularly obesity – through a Jewish lens. Glaser educates about the Torah perspective on protecting our health, and he works to inspire and motivate audiences to take steps toward establishing a healthier relationship with food. Soveya – derived from the Hebrew phrase “V’Achalta, V’Savata, u’Verachata [You shall eat, you shall be satisfied and you shall bless God],” a part of the required blessing after eating a meal – has 10,000 email subscribers.
“Limiting ourselves to one serving of cholent is not restricting, it’s elevating,” Glaser, who also writes under the moniker the “Running Rabbi,” explains. “It really is a mitzvah not to take seconds,” he says.
Baltimore health coach Stacy Spigelman also believes, “We learn in the Torah to guard our bodies and souls,” but “our Jewish culture in many ways does not take that commandment seriously.”
However, this paradigm is shifting, she says. In addition to Soveya, Kosher Fresh Diet, a complementary kosher meal plan by the creators of The Fresh Diet at-home meal-delivery company, launched in 2006. It expanded to the greater New York area, New Jersey, Connecticut, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington by 2011.
The StartFresh website – dubbed with the slogan “Dieting the kosher way!” – promotes itself through testimonials by people named Gittel and Rivka.
“I love the fact that I am told exactly what to eat on Shabbat and on Yom Tov. You also prepare me emotionally so I can handle anger, boredom, celebration, depression ... without overeating,” writes Rivka in her testimonial.
Shape Fitness now offers “kosher workout DVDs,” with kosher music and women in modest dress. Fit Yid offers a similar video for Jewish Orthodox men with an all-male cast working out to Jewish music.
Spigelman embarked on her personal health journey five years ago when her weight peaked, and she became physically and emotionally uncomfortable. She connected with Medifast, Inc.’s program Take Shape for Life, founded by Dr. Wayne Scott Andersen, self-published author of “Dr. A’s Habits of Health: The Path to Permanent Weight Control and Optimal Health.”
She found the program, which is now also launching new products under the brand name Optavia, through a friend. She then recruited her husband, David, and together the couple launched a second career as Take Shape for Life health and wellness coaches. Spigelman lost 30 pounds by creating healthier eating and exercise habits, and continues to challenge herself by incorporating more healthy habits into her life and those of her family members.
The Take Shape for Life program is not a Jewish program. However, David Spigelman says he connects to the program because of its “Jewish values,” such as learning to be grateful, appreciating the miracles of our bodies and operating out of free will. He says so many Jewish and kosher-observant individuals have joined the program in the last several years that Take Shape for Life has committed to providing kosher packaged food, which customers utilize in the first phase of the weight-loss regime.
“Any new products – they try to make them kosher,” says David Spigelman. “Some 85 to 90 percent are already kosher.”
“Not only must we maintain our exemplary standards of kashrut, but we should also understand that the quality of the food we put in our mouths has a direct impact on our physical and spiritual well-being,” adds Glaser.
“We use our mouths to learn and pray. … Should the same mouth that communicates with our Father in Heaven blurt out hurtful speech or consume unhealthy foods?” he asks.