Lynn Kaufman admits that she comes from “big, hearty stock.”
But after 30 years of being overweight, the Westside resident decided to get
“I had gotten to a really scary number on the scale,” said
Kaufman, a veteran of numerous diets and 10 years with Overeaters Anonymous. At
long last, Kaufman lost 42 pounds with Weight Watchers and has kept them off
for two years.
Of course, she needs to stay slim to keep her job as a
Weight Watchers group leader.Spirited and passionate about health
consciousness, Kaufman even drastically curtailed her hours as a personal
injury attorney in favor of a far less lucrative career with the weight-loss
In fact, Kaufman is one of the busiestÂ leaders in town,
running 11 meetings weekly. Several are in the Beverly-La Brea area, where
Kaufman estimated that close to 70 percent of the members are Jewish, including
many who are Orthodox.
As the nation’s obese population has increased since the
1980s, even Jews in image-conscious Los Angeles have followed suit.
“In my clinical expereince, obesity is just as prevalent in
the Jewish community as in the general population,” said Dr. David Medway, a Los
Angeles physican specializing in obesity and weight control. “It’s a problem
that is pervasive throughout all economic groups: It’s an epidemic,” he said.
Up until the 1970s, the nation’s obese population had
remained fairly stable at about 13 percent. However, by the end of the 1980s,
nearly 25 percent of the population was obese, and the numbers have continued
to rise since then, according to National Center for Health Statistics. The
number of overweight children has nearly tripled.
It’s easy to see why. People are generally less physically
active today, yet live high-stress lives. Less inclined to cook at home, sales
of convenience or take-out meals have soared in recent years. In addition, U.S.
restaurants serve portions dramatically larger than those in Europe — often,
far more than an individual should eat at a sitting.
For ritually observant Jews, who celebrate the holidays and
Shabbat, managing their weight becomes even more of a challenge.
“People who eat OK during the week have a hard time keeping
it together on Shabbat,” Kaufman said. In fact, Kaufman’s Sunday meetings are
especially crowded with Orthodox Jews. One member confided that she likes
Sunday weigh-ins because they keep her from overindulging on Shabbat.
“I tell people to eat whatever they want but just know what
they’re eating and how it will affect their goals,” Kaufman said. “Don’t expect
to go out and eat a huge bowl of fettuccini Alfredo for dinner three nights in
a row and lose any weight.”
As Kaufman warms up before a meeting, Laura Weinman is often
behind the desk, accepting payments from members. As the Orthodox mother of two
young children, Weinman, who is also on the program, believes that many
observant Jews need to “change the way they think about food. We come together
as a community through food. You want to keep the traditions, but you also have
to ask yourself, ‘Do I really want to eat this?’ It can be tremendously hard.”
To keep her weight down, Weinman swears off all but homemade
challah on Shabbat and exercises at least three times a week. An avid cook, she
has also learned to retool her recipes, such as substituting applesauce for oil
and low-fat Toffuti products for cream cheese. “I find ways to make a beautiful
meal without sacrificing taste or volume,” she said. “There’s no recipe I can’t
But some people prefer other weight loss programs. Zvi
Hollander, rabbi of Young Israel of Venice, battled his weight and struggled to
control his diabetes for years. His exercise regimen of weekend mountain-biking
and hiking — he has climbed Mount Whitney twice — didn’t help.
Hollander finally found success through Compulsive Eaters
Anonymous-Honesty, Open-mindedness and Willingness (CEA-HOW). The program is
based on the 12-step philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous and promotes abstinence
–Â not only from compulsive eating but also from foods considered particularly
addictive: white sugar and flour.
Since joining CEA-HOW 16 months ago, Hollander has lost 44
pounds and is still losing at a rate of a half-pound to a pound each week. His
goal is to lose another 20. However, Hollander is frustrated by what he sees as
the denial of many in the observant Jewish community about the problem of
obesity and its underlying issues.
“We eat for comfort, or because we’re angry, or other
reasons that have nothing to do with real hunger,” he observed. He pointed out
the irony of the Orthodox Union recently devoting a cover story in its magazine
to eating disorders among Jews.
“You know what they focused on? Anorexia and bulimia,”
Hollander said. “Those are serious concerns, but they affect only a fraction of
the number of people who are obese.”
The rabbi is clearly relieved to have found a solution that
works for him. “I can admit that I feel powerless over food,” he said. “Only
the Almighty can help me. And these 12-step ideas are also rooted in Torah.”
Before he joined the program, Hollander consulted with Rabbi
Abraham Twerski, a nationally known expert in issues of addiction. Twerski, the
author of dozens of books on psychology and self-help, including “The Thin You
Within You,” endorsed the 12-step philosophy wholeheartedly, because it helps
people recognize what Judaism calls the yetzer hara (the inclination to follow
one’s desires rather than one’s better instincts).
“To the extent that I let go, food no longer controls me,”
Hollander said. “God can take away the obsession. How we deal with food is a
true test of spirituality.”
Hollander is thrilled with his weight loss but is even
happier that as a result, he is now almost completely off insulin. A group
leader for CEA-HOW, he is trying to encourage many of his heavy friends and
colleagues to get serious about managing their own weight. Unfortunately, he
has met a lot of resistance.
“Just because obesity is a slow killer doesn’t mean it isn’t
a killer,” noted Hollander, who lost an overweight friend only in his mid-40s
to a heart attack last year. “People have no problem viewing alcohol as
addictive, but they don’t see food that way. I think we have desensitized
ourselves to viewing obesity as a disease.”
The Venice-based rabbi is proud that Ohr Eliyahu, the day
school where he teaches, has stopped dangling the incentives of pizza or ice
cream parties for children to learn or behave well. Now, they are rewarded with
outings or new books.
That’s the kind of change Kaufman would also like to see at
the day school where her children go, where ice cream parties are the norm to
celebrate in class. Kaufman is also disturbed when she sees very obese school
staff, who she said provide a poor role model for children.
Yet, given a lifetime of reinforcement of the idea of food
as reward, Kaufman admits that it’s hard even for her not to reward her own
children with food for good grades. But she is also determined to break the
Sometimes people have to experiment with many diet
philosophies before they find the solution that works best for them. For Michel
Mazouz, a Los Angeles internist in private practice, weight management became
an almost accidental specialty in his practice.
“I had noticed a trend in the medical literature,” Mazouz
recalled. “It seemed that no matter what the main medical problem was, the
physician also noted, ‘Patient also needs to lose weight,’ or ‘Patient needs to
control diabetes.’ It seemed that being overweight was causing many additional
health problems for more and more people.”
After an orthopedist colleague sent Mazouz a patient for
help with weight loss, both physicians realized that losing weight also cleared
up the patient’s knee problem. As word of his success with patients has grown,
Mazouz’s practice has grown from having almost no patients coming for weight
loss help to nearly one-third.
“There are 1,001 reasons why people gain weight,” Mazouz
explained. “It’s very time-consuming to treat these patients, because you have
to know who you’re dealing with. I explain the chain reactions of foods,
because the more they know the more they’ll do right.”
Mazouz developed a weight-loss program that he describes as
a “modified Atkins diet,” referring to the no-carbohydrate diet that is back in
vogue after 20 years of being ostracized by the medical practice. He allows
more carbohydrates than Atkins, although they are still limited. Mazouz
explains to his patients that quite simply, limiting carbohydrates promotes the
burning of fat.
After weight loss is achieved, Mazouz emphasizes maintenance
for his patients, which is, he acknowledges, the most important step.
“Ultimately,” he said, “I want my patients to become their own doctors.”
Mazouz, who is Orthodox, believes in the importance of
managing one’s weight not only for health, but also because “the body is like
the soul. Both are on loan from God. We need to take care of both.”
Yet, even those who have succeeded in taming the beast of
obesity know they must stay vigilant. As Weinman observed, “I’d love to have a
day when I didn’t have to think about food. Every day is a struggle.”