Potato chips can be absolutely addicting. The marketing of processed foods in America has brilliantly caught us in our weakness for tasty, addictive foods. Most of us have been there – when we really couldn’t eat just “one” of those crunchy, starchy, salty snacks. And we live to regret it.
Starch, sugar and salt – all staples of the American diet, have attached themselves to us, as addictions and excess body fat. The more sugar and starch we eat, the more we want it. And it is not just “junk food” — pasta and bread made of processed white flour, and cereals made of highly processed grains and lots of sugar have weakened our willpower. Low in nutrition, these “foods” fill us up but don’t feed us, leaving us wanting more, and more, and more.
The problems with the American food system are numerous, but the challenge to our health and well-being begins with our addiction to foods whose quantity and quality are not good for our bodies.
It’s a hard problem. It’s easy to say we should have willpower. Getting there is another thing.
I was raised in a 1960-70’s household that, like my peers’ homes, fully embraced the glory of processed foods. My mom was very petite, nicknamed “the bird” by my paternal grandmother because of the small portions she ate (defying my grandmother’s understanding.) But my dad, who had shot up to six feet tall in adolescence, never shed his teenage boy’s appetite. As a result, he packed on the weight until he was diagnosed with diabetes in early middle age. I got my father’s genes, never petite like my mom’s side, and always struggling with weight like my dad’s side. Of course, I didn’t realize how much the deck was stacked against me by the food choices that were regular in our household.
As a young adult I was drawn to Jewish observance, and kashrut in particular – the system of Jewish dietary laws. I sensed that a discipline of holiness would make a significant impact on my life. I gave up one food after another – Philly cheesesteaks, bacon, shrimp, and other treyfe (forbidden foods) that were a staple in my childhood home. As I did, I felt strengthened by the experience of the discipline. Eating became more thoughtful, more mindful, and more deliberate.
Along the way I learned that the experience of discipline that I enjoyed in keeping kosher helped me in my life in lots of ways. Among them was a sharper sense of willpower.
Ultimately, I have come to eat a restricted diet based on nutrition and health, and kashrut. I find it very empowering. It doesn’t hurt that it is reinforced by how great it feels to be healthy.
I was thinking of this when I recently heard an interview on WNYC, the New York public radio station. The subject was “willpower,” talking about the annual ritual of January New Year’s resolutions, and how to keep them. The guest was Roy Baumeister, co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister made this essential point: willpower is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. The more you exercise willpower, the easier it is to have self-control with all aspects of life.
Avoiding addictive processed foods helps. But the real trick to health and empowerment, is the regular exercise of willpower. One step at a time, and it is within our reach.
This, after all, was the wisdom of Jewish sages who gave us the disciplines of Jewish law. They understood that the “greatest human strength” of willpower is what helps us to fully access our human potential. It is an empowerment that animates the Divine spark within us.
(Image from: 1stclasssleep.wordpress.com, via Google Images)