By: Michael Cohen (body By Mike)
Health fads come and go. One day you’re sold purple tomatoes believed to fight cancer, and the next you hear about the benefits of raw eggs and coffee. Two months later, you learn that the latest rage you tried actually doesn’t help – and may actually be dangerous. The flood of often conflicting information and advice given by scientists and doctors makes it hard to determine the most important factors to focus on to keep healthy and fit. Should you follow recommendations of the study that came out last week? Or wait for the one that is supposed to be released next month?
The best advice is probably neither. Instead, I recommend following some simple guidelines established over 800 years ago. We would be well-served to heed the timeless advice given by the great sage Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon 1135 – 1204), head physician to the Sultan of Egypt and rabbinic leader of that country’s Jewish community, who wrote about diet, exercise and health in the Hilchot De’ot section of his Mishneh Torah.
The Rambam guarantees perfect health to any person who follows his 23 health directives. He emphasizes the leading role that eating plays in health, a concept substantiated by Dr. Mark Hegstead of the Harvard School of Public Health, in his report to the Senate on nutrition and fitness: “There is much evidence… that the major cause of death and disability are related to the diet we eat.”
The Rambam’s main “recipe” for healthy living consists of exercise, limiting food intake, and loose bowel movement.
Today, for most people, the primary health concern should be food quantity. According to Rambam, overeating even healthful foods is far worse than eating a minimal amount of unhealthful foods. Small quantities are fully digested, such that the body extracts all the food’s nourishment before expelling the rest. But when one overeats, the food is not properly digested, leading to illness.
The Rambam suggests that one should not eat more than ¾ of his or her capacity. Rabbi Jonathon Rietti, in a lecture entitled “Health and the Rambam,” supports the Rambam’s suggestion with references from modern science. As reported in the New York Times on November 7th, 2006, researchers have found a link between longevity and restricted calorie intake. Studies showed that mammals that eat 1/3 fewer calories while maintaining all the necessary nutrients were able to live the human equivalent of 40 years longer. Furthermore, Dr. Ray Wolford, Aging Expert from the University of California, said that people can increase their lifespan starting as late as in middle age by cutting their food intake by 20-30 percent. And according to Dr. Edward Masaro of the University of Texas, reducing protein intake by as much as 50 percent “greatly lengthened the life of animals.” Dr. Steven Smith, who enjoyed a full century of life, remarked, “Take care of your stomach the first 50 years, and it will take care of you the next 50 years.”
The second key factor mentioned by the Rambam is exercise, which burns excess fat accumulated by overeating, and stimulates good digestion. The Rambam even says that “a person who customarily exercises before meals does not have to be careful [with his diet].” In addition to the physical benefits of exercise, the Rambam also stresses its psychosomatic benefits. Modern science has indeed found that body movement creates neurons that improve emotional well being.
Finally, the Rambam warns of the dangers in constipation, which signals the onset of illness. Efficient bowel movements remove waste and toxins from the body. To minimize constipation, one should drink at least eight cups of water and eat 25-35 grams of fiber each day.
But while the primary factors that determine health are food intake, exercise and proper bowel movements, the Rambam also recognized the role of psychological conditions, including anxiety, insomnia and anger, all of which, he found, can cause illness. Once again, the Rambam’s theories are consistent with modern thinking. Dr. Andrew Weil explains that “mind plays a huge role… All the systems and state of entire physiology comes from what you do inside your head. Anger and resentment are poison for the body.”
The Rambam’s main principles of health are as relevant now as they were when he wrote them over eight centuries ago. The theories presented in his extensive writings on topics such as general medicine, physiology, anatomy, disease, surgery, hygiene, drugs and exercise among many others, have been substantiated by the latest findings in modern science. Following these tried and true guidelines will save you the heartache of diet trends that are later found to be sheer nonsense. And when it comes to choosing an exercise routine, follow your heart’s desire. It doesn’t matter which fad you follow, just follow something that, in the Rambam’s words, “your soul is interested in and causes your body to rejoice,” and exercise your organs for the ultimate purpose of maintaining a healthy body to use in the service of our Creator.