How Spirituality Can Help Us Lose Weight

How Spirituality Can Help Us Lose Weight

As someone who does not practice psychology for a living, but as someone who has struggled with weight throughout my life, I believe some of us, no matter our BMI (body mass index), see ourselves as overweight. Because I spent ages, ten-eighteen as an overweight child/young adult, I have always seen myself as fat, even when I was what was considered a healthy, “thin” weight.

I have expended an inordinate amount of wasted time in front of the mirror, evaluating my waistline, assessing the way my clothes fit and feeling guilty about how much food I put in my mouth. I have spent more time than anyone knows thinking about my next meal, imagining the taste and texture of the food, intuiting the comfort I will temporarily receive from eating.

I am currently heavier than I should be, but in my mind, heavy, medium or “normal weight”(whatever the heck that actually means) is almost always the same for me…. I live the psychology of being fat.

And, I know I can’t be the only one who walks around with this defeating mindset. Society does it to us. Our upbringing does it to us. And then, we add to it by doing a pretty good number on ourselves. For any of you who struggle with what I describe above, I understand.

So, then I open up the New York Times, Sunday Review. On its front page this week, the cover story reads, “Never Diet Again”. The article’s premise posits that, “dieting is rarely effective. The root of the problem”, the author writes, “is not willpower but neuroscience.” For some of us, apparently, we are programmed to a certain weight level, which is set by virtue of genes and life experience. Sandra Aamodt, the author, writes, “When dieters’ weight drops below it (individual defined weight level), they not only burn fewer calories but also produce more hunger-inducing hormones.  Aamodt claims that if we lose weight beyond our pre-determined weight level, we will be forced into a chemically induced state, which makes us feel like we are starving. And then, we will eat more and actually gain more weight than we lost on our chosen diet plans.

Besides the fact that the author points out that we can actually live healthily as overweight people, by exercising, reducing stress, etc., there is a sense from the article that some of us are sentenced to a life of being overweight.

The article gives a minimal nod to the part a spiritual life might play in the process of losing weight. It mentions in a final passing sentence that meditation and mindful eating might be helpful antidotes to overeating. 

Isn’t there more to be said? I am a steadfast believer in the notion of redemption. I believe that we can change almost anything about ourselves. I don’t discount the complex and arduous work of change. In particular, I don’t discount the insidious cycle of addiction with which many of us struggle (Yes, I would admit that I am a food addict). However, to be relegated or preordained to being overweight is something to which I don’t subscribe.

Our spirituality might indeed help us along the path that physiology cannot. Many of us eat to fill our never-ending holes. We eat to compensate for guilt, jealousy, anger and resentment.  We eat because we feel like we can control the uncontrollable. We eat to allay our fears and insecurities. My goodness, we eat for so many reasons other than simply being hungry. 

I suggest that perhaps if we find ways to fill our emotional holes with spiritual practice, we may not be as inclined to try to fill our voids with food. Instead of sublimating our pain through eating, we might own our feelings that cause us anxiety and hardship. Spiritual teaching guides us to honor the parts of us that hurt; to embrace our imperfections as the parts of us, which are actually most unique and special. Meditation allows us to embrace our deepest sense of wisdom, which reminds us that we are good and decent people despite what we tell ourselves. Self-care can help us remember that we don’t need the adoration of others to think highly of ourselves. Self-care renews in us the idea that falling is not our problem; it is having the grit to be able to get up and try again which becomes our virtue.

And perhaps we can just admit that we are not in control of it all. We can be more open to our inadequacies. We can understand that we cannot be perfect; that we will disappoint someone, someplace along our way. We can be open to help; more open to the idea that in our vulnerability we find our real strength as people of our world.

There is light beyond the darkness. I am not suggesting that we can beat the physiology completely, but I do believe that we can find a healthy medium without being relegated to a life sentence of being stuck inside of bodies which we don’t appreciate and honor nearly enough. Tending to the wisdom of our souls may in fact help us feel better about physical self…..and who knows, perhaps around the waste line as well.


Matt Gewirtz

Matthew D. Gewirtz is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey. He is the author of The Gift of Grief: Finding Peace, Transformation and Renewed Life after Great Sorrow? (Random House). A strong advocate of social justice, Matt Gewirtz is a founding executive committee member of the Newark Coalition for Hope and Peace, an interfaith organization of Jews, Christians and Muslims that is committed to ending gang violence in Newark. Matt Gewirtz strives to find joy and meaning in his daily life and is committed to helping do the same for others. His greatest joy comes from his wife, Lauren and their three beautiful children.

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