Friday, August 16, 2002

Too Much Of A Good Thing?

By Abraham J. Twerski
Jewish Week - August 16, 2002

`Ess, ess, mein kind" (eat, eat, my dear child). Who would ever have envisioned that these endearing words from a loving parent might one day contribute to major health problems?
Recent studies show that the incidence of obesity is rapidly increasing in the United States, now affecting 23 percent of the population. Even more people, although not obese, are heavier than their healthy weight. Fifty-five percent of people older than age 20 are either overweight or obese.
Being overweight increases the risk of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. The additional stress on the joints aggravates arthritis. Obesity can elevate the likelihood of breast cancer, as well as colon, uterine and prostate cancer. Obesity is the leading cause of Type 2 diabetes, which generally develops after age 40.
It is legendary that Jewish mothers promote eating. The erroneous idea that the more one eats the healthier one will be may have had its origin when tuberculosis was rampant, and victims of this disease often appeared emaciated. The logic then went, "If thin equals disease, then fat equals health.
There may also have been a psychological factor. In many Jewish homes in Europe, food was not in abundance. When it was available, it was the greatest gift a mother could give her child. Whatever the reasons, the fact is that eating disorders are common among Jews.
It is only natural to look for easy solutions to problems. People are attracted to any diet that promises to take off weight. Anyone who has tried these miracle diets will testify that they work for a short period of time, only to be followed by return of the weight plus a few additional pounds.
Reliance on medications for the long term has also been futile. These approaches result in the yo-yo phenomenon, which is anything but healthy.
In cases of very severe obesity, surgery has been effective in producing significant weight loss. Nevertheless, obesity surgeons state that maintenance of health requires a change in lifestyle, particularly addressing management of emotions.
The latter insight is crucial. Neither diets nor medications alone will work. The most effective method of long-term weight control is ongoing participation in a support group, such as Overeaters Anonymous. In many cases, psychotherapy and counseling, whether individual or group, is a valuable adjunct.
Changes in lifestyle and habits do not come about easily. Initiating the change in a residential treatment center can give one a foothold on recovery. The intensive treatment can help overcome the resistance to change and give a person basic tools that one can then use over the long term.
The body has specific nutritive needs. When one consumes food beyond these needs, it is no longer nutrition. Because food can quell emotional discomfort, it can be used as a tranquilizer. It is this use of food than can result in eating disorders.
The tendency to overeat, coupled with the cosmetic desire to appear thin, has resulted in a high incidence of anorexia-bulimia. This is a condition in which one binges on food and then tries to prevent weight gain by forced vomiting, fasting, exercising or using laxatives and diuretics. Anorexia-bulimia is more common among females and often has its onset in adolescence. It is a well-guarded secret, so parents and husband may be unsuspecting. It is believed that 25 percent of high-school and college-age women may have anorexia-bulimia.
The emotional effects of anorexia-bulimia are deleterious. These young women often become depressed. Their preoccupation with food and weight may absorb all their thinking, so their performance in school or at work suffers. They may realize they have a problem and would like to help themselves, but they are trapped in this condition. They are afraid to tell their parents or spouse about their problem.
Awareness of the prevalence of eating disorders can help identify them. There are treatment resources available. On the Internet one can find information about anorexia-bulimia and obesity. There is now a facility that provides kosher food.
As food can be a tranquilizer, no one wishes to lose the comforting effects. However, we must become aware of the serious dangers to life and health resulting from eating disorders. We must overcome the denial of the problem in ourselves and in our children, and implement the methods that can bring about sustained, healthy weight. 
Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, a rabbi and psychologist, heads the Gateway Rehabilitation Center near Pittsburgh.

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