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March 10, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Tzav

In this week’s Torah portion, God instructs Moses that the Jews shall not eat certain fats (Lev. 7:23).  Scharfstein writes that the Torah is teaching the Israelites “a cardiovascular lesson” about the cholesterol-inducing evils of fat.  Of course, the Torah still allows plenty of fatty meats, so Scharfstein is stretching the Torah quite a bit.   Moreover, it isn’t clear that Scharfstein is right nutritionally; while some nutritional commentators still swear by low-fat diets and even veganism, others favor fat and villify carbohydrates.

Nevertheless, the whole issue makes me think.  It seems to me that the wide variety of nutritional stringencies common among the American upper-middle-class are a bit like religion, or perhaps a substitute for same.  How so?

*Just as there are a wide variety of religions, there are a wide variety of nutritional “sects”: the bread-phobes, the fat-phobes, the vegetarians and vegans, the organic eaters, and some who even make distinctions among prohibited and permissible fruits and vegetables.  Each claims that their way is best (though to a much greater extent than in the religious area, syncretism is common- vegans may also be worried about fat or bread). 

*But just as there is some similarity between 90 percent of religions, there is some similarity among 90 percent of nutrition-conscious Americans.  Almost every religion (except the extreme fringes of Islam perhaps) says love your neighbor and love God, almost every diet book says love fruits and vegetables (whatever those phrases mean) and hate obesity. 

*Religion and nutrition are to a large extent based on faith.  What of science, you may ask?  Surely, nutritionists have all kinds of studies proving their varying points.  But how many people who follow one doctor or another have read the studies he cites to examine whether he has interpreted them correctly?  Not many, I suspect.  From other disciplines, I know that studies are easy to mis- or overinterpret.  Even if a study seems to say that people who do X really do get more of disease Y, maybe the study has not controlled for all the differences between the X-users and the non-X-users (which is why one study alone is less trustworthy than dozens of studies). 

Does this mean that nutrition and religion are useless? Not at all.  I suspect that on balance, religious people of all types are probably happier than nonreligious ones (though I have not done the research necessary to prove this) and I suspect that nutrition-conscious people of all types are healthier than those who are completely apathetic. (In addition, some people really do know what is good for themselves through trial and error).  But we should all be wary about asserting that what is best for us is best for all people./ 


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