Does Religious Observance Lead to Obesity? – Jewish and American Laws on Healthy Eating

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.

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3 Comments

Filed under American Law, Halacha / Jewish Law, Health & Medicine, News

3 responses to “Does Religious Observance Lead to Obesity? – Jewish and American Laws on Healthy Eating

  1. How does this square up with the following at

    http://www.jewishmediaresources.com/1434/vayikra-5771

    Religion Increases Well-Being
    A friend of mine received a call the other night for a telephone survey of senior citizens. The interviewer wanted to know about his physical and emotional health – “Do you have any trouble picking up objects off the floor?”; “Do you suffer from depression?”; “Do you find yourself frequently bored?” The last question asked him to categorize himself according to religious observance.

    Instead of answering, my friend asked the interviewer to guess. Until that point there had been nothing in the interview relating directly to religion. The survey focused exclusively on questions about the interviewee’s general state of heath. And my friend had not peppered his answers with “Baruch Hashem”. Nevertheless, the interviewer guessed correctly that he was religiously observant.

    My friend asked the interviewer how he had known. “Well, you seem like a pretty optimistic fellow,” the interviewer said. “And I find religious people are generally more optimistic.” The interviewer’s response turns out to be based on solid empirical evidence. A recent Gallup-Healthways survey of 372,000 people found that American Jews ranked highest of any religious group on the well-being index, based on such factors as health, happiness, and access to basic needs. And among American Jews, the most religious rank the highest on the well-being scale. (A strong positive relationship between religiosity and well-being is found in all religious groups.)

    By the age when getting up from a chair becomes an issue, most people are winding down. Not frum Jews. They are still living lives of constant anticipation (like the rabbi’s late wife Eva in Dov Haller’s “Waiting for the Rabbi”). My friend is busy with grandchildren’s weddings, his own chavrusos from 6:30 a.m. on, and learning with boys from broken homes at night. Why not be optimistic?

    • Kineret

      I think that the above post is referring to weight and the associated health risks of being overweight. But that doesn’t mean that people who are overweight are necessarily less healthy than their lighter counterparts (like a chain smoker of average weight). Your article is referring to mental health and acuity, which can make a world of difference. And I have seen several studies and articles saying the same: religious people (or those who pray/meditate regularly) are healthier, heal more successfully and faster, and live longer and happier lives. Depression, drugs, stress, loneliness– these maladies are commonplace in the secular world and probably do more damage than the extra pounds left over from Yom Tov.

  2. SEW

    I recently returned from trips to Florida and Arizona and noticed that there are many more people who are obese in these places than in the north east part of our country. Obesity is affected by many other things than religion.

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