Northwestern University School of Medicine recently released the results of a study of obesity amongst religious young adults. The investigation reportedly revealed that young adults who attend religious activities at least once a week were 50% more likely to become obese by middle age, as compared to young adults with no religious involvement. (Click here for more information.) While some may be skeptical as to the conclusions drawn from this investigation, the study does raise the issue of religious––particularly, Jewish––views on healthy eating habits. First, however, let us look how American legislatures and courts have addressed the issue.
As every American consumer has probably recognized, nearly all manufactured foods sold in stores must contain a “Nutrition Facts” label, pursuant to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, 21 U.S.C. § 343(q), designed to promote healthy eating habits. Perhaps more interesting than this legislative action are lawsuits brought against fast food chains alleging that the restaurants negligently manufacture and sell unhealthy foods and fail to warn consumers about the risks of consuming them. See, e.g. Pelman v. McDonald’s Corp., 237 F.Supp.2d 512 (S.D.N.Y. 2003). As the court in Pelman pointed out, litigation such as this raises the question: “where should the line be drawn between an individual’s own responsibility to take care of herself, and society’s responsibility to ensure that others shield her?” The Pelman court was clear in its reluctance to hold fast food manufacturers liable for the bad choices of overeating consumers. Not long after that case, the U.S. House of Representatives expressed its approval of this policy by passing the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act (a.k.a. the “Cheeseburger Bill”), which aimed to prevent “civil liability actions brought . . . against food manufacturers . . . for claims of injury relating to a person’s weight gain, obesity, or any health condition associated with weight gain or obesity.” Although it passed in the House, the bill was never passed by the Senate, and thus never became law. Nevertheless, nearly half of the states have enacted their own “Cheeseburger Bills.”
Turning to Jewish law, we find a similar perspective. The Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os, ch. 4) describes in detail the types of foods one should and should not eat, as well as eating habits that one should and should not adopt. Nevertheless, as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein points out (Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, vol. 2, § 76), the Rambam never mentions any prohibition against eating unhealthy foods, engaging in unhealthy eating habits, or feeding others unhealthy food. This is in contrast to the Rambam’s language in Hilchos Rotzei’ach, ch. 11, where he discusses the prohibition of placing oneself or others in a life-threatening situation. Thus, there seems to be no prohibition against feeding someone unhealthy food or against an individual eating unhealthy food. Rabbi Feinstein explains that it is impossible to prohibit unhealthy foods, because they generally do provide nourishment, and most people are able to eat them without being harmed. Furthermore, many people are too busy or cannot afford to purchase healthier food on a constant basis.
Although there appears to be no prohibition against eating unhealthy food or engaging in unhealthy eating habits, the Rambam strongly cautions against it. Hilchos Dei’os, ch. 4. He explains that someone in a state of poor health will not be able to serve God properly. Id. § 1 The Rambam goes on to list various foods one should and should not partake in. Additionally, he states that “gluttonous eating is like poison to the body.” See also Gittin 70a.
Finally, as the Ramban explains in the beginning of Parsahas Kedoshim, Jews are obligated to strive towards holiness in their lives, as the Torah states: “You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy.” Vayikra [Leviticus] 19:2. One of the practices that is clearly antithetical to a holy lifestyle is gluttonous eating. Although the Torah permits us to eat many types of foods, it commands us to do so in moderation.