Rambams energy diet provides sustenance for all ages

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When people live in leisure-minded societies, they often glorify eating for eating's sake. Jews are no exception. We invest inordinate amounts of time and money indulging our appetites, whether dining out as an avocation, reading journals wholly dedicated to reflection, driving to the other side of town to find a recipe's key ingredient, or discussing the pros and cons of imported kohlrabi.

Or, in the alarming words of one recent Shabbat guest, "balancing the colors on my plate is really important to me."

We like to eat. But our relationship with food is not as innocuous. It says plenty about what is valued, how we control (or don't) basic desires, and how (or if) we appreciate the source of our sustenance.

Jewish tradition does not view food as an end in itself, but as a means of keeping bodies healthy and psyches balanced so the individual can go on with the more important business of serving God. As we get older, it is important that we focus on balance.

Rambam (Moshe ben Maimon, or Maimonides, 1135-1204) summarizes this view in the Hilchot Deot section of the Yad Chazaka. Deot, based on Talmudic sources, explains how to become a mensch, and covers a wide variety of topics. Imitate God by giving to others, take special care of orphans and widows, and judge others favorably.

Don't take vengeance (or even hold a grudge), don't ever embarrass others, and don't spread gossip. Usually, best to keep quiet.

Rambam goes beyond the more familiar ethical realm. He's keen on regular exercise, going to the bathroom modestly, and making an honest living before buying a home. Dress respectably (but without flash), make sure the people in your daily life have exemplary personal qualities, and sanctify your sexual conduct.

No subject is too mundane or crass for treatment. Rambam makes clear that we come closest to holiness when we refine our potentially grossest personal behavior.

It is no surprise, then, that Rambam devotes a substantial portion of Deot to sound eating habits for the young and not-so-young alike:

*Eat in order to keep the body healthy and not to satisfy the palate.

*Eat only when hungry and stop before filling up.

Excessive fasting deprives the needy body and denies the blessing of God's sustenance. Usually this kind of fasting (unlike chronic eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia) seems motivated more by personal vanity than spirituality.

For the religious personality, fasting, only in moderation, is meant as a trigger to overcome personal deficiencies, not to reduce love handles.

Rambam itemizes what he considers beneficial, as well as harmful, in human nutrition. At times, he reads like a modern health guru. Figs, pears, melons and different kinds of squash are good in cleaning the digestive tract, but eat them well in advance of larger meals, and don't mix them with carbohydrates.

White meat should always be eaten before red meat, and eggs precede all flesh. Avoid aged, salted fish and cheeses, as well as any cooked foods with unpleasant odors. Honey and wine are terrible for kids, but invigorating for the elderly.

Anybody who drinks too much alcohol is iniquitous and repulsive, and is destined for a shortened life. Pomegranates, quinces and apples strengthen the intestines, but don't eat too many of them.

Stick to his regimen, and Rambam indicates that you will have more energy, greater concentration and increased enthusiasm in all pursuits.

Rambam's diet does not always correspond with the latest developments in nutritional studies, but human eating habits have never been an exact science.

Health pursuits themselves should never be too engrossing. Rambam probably would not endorse macrobiotics, intrusive weight loss plans or other modern health systems that require excessive commitment.

Eating properly does not have to become an obsession. The simplest and most attainable foods provide the greatest nutrition.

The best diet limits the obtrusiveness and excess of food, and permits focus on more spiritual endeavors.

Since the destruction of the Second Temple, the dining room table has taken the place of the altar, representing an accessible place where all people can come closer to God.

If possible, all food should be eaten sitting at the table, or at least sitting in the house. Speak divrei Torah — words on matters of ethical or spiritual consequence — while eating.

Let meals be an occasion for family, scholarly, or communal gatherings. Welcome the poor to the table. Say blessings before and after eating in appreciation of God's generosity.

While Rambam opposed eating purely for pleasures he was not ascetic: Enjoy food, don't waste any, and use enjoyment to help further generate feelings of gratitude.

Recognize and resist the weakness for making food into a diversion.