MK Ya’acov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) is one of our more agreeable ministers. He is a soft-spoken, gentle man, seems to take his job as health minister very seriously, and usually tries to avoid anything that smacks of scandal. A public opinion poll conducted by TV Channel 2 in September 2015 showed Litzman to be the most popular government minister with 5.6 points (out of 10). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came second with 5.4 points.
Three weeks ago Litzman declared war against junk food, as the cause of obesity and other health problems, in the course of a cardiologists’ conference.
Given the fact that his hands are tied with regard to any serious measures he might wish to take to reduce the congestion in the hospitals (“old ladies in the corridor”), deal with the shortage of doctors and nurses and stop the privatization of medical services, dealing with the junk food problem is a poor man’s consolation.
Asked whether he didn’t fear the reaction of large corporations Litzman replied, “I know they won’t like my saying this, but let me tell you a secret: I don’t have primaries.”
All very true, but the only problem is that when he spoke of junk food he didn’t mention “large corporations” – only McDonald’s.
Indeed, McDonald’s has unwillingly turned in recent decades into a symbol for the evils of fast food and junk food, but apparently this is not the only reason Litzman singled it out. One has reason to believe that he chose McDonald’s because even though the meat McDonald’s uses in Israel is all kosher, some of its branches are open on Saturday, and serve cheeseburgers.
If true this puts Litzman in the same category with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who several years ago declared war against McDonald’s in Russia, allegedly because of the quality of the food it serves but in fact as a countermeasure to the Western boycott of Russia over its occupation of the Crimea. In other words, not a war against junk food.
But leaving politics aside, McDonald’s is a bad target these days in the battle against junk food, not least because of its major efforts to improve the quality of the products it uses in preparing the food it serves. It has lowered the amount of fat in the unprocessed meat it uses in its burgers, removed trans fats from the oil it uses to fry its French fries, cut down the saturated oils in which it fries its various meat, poultry and fish products and lowered sugar and sodium levels. In addition, it added various fresh vegetable salads to its menu.
The result: the food served at McDonald’s these days is certainly much healthier than it was in the past, but at a cost. The burgers might be made of better quality meat, but they are dry (which is what happens to burgers if prepared from lean meat), bland (which is what happens when one cuts down on spices) and over-priced.
If Litzman were really serious about fighting the evils of unhealthy food in general, and junk food in particular, perhaps he should look a little closer home.
I am a great lover of cholent – especially in the winter, and especially if it is made with all the traditional products that ought to go into this traditional Jewish dish, which is especially popular among Ashkenazi haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews). That cholent is a markedly unhealthy dish, and that there is an awareness of this fact in modern haredi circles, may be deduced from the fact that on the Internet one can find plenty of recipes for “healthy” or “dietary” cholent.
There is only one problem with this growing awareness: Litzman’s voters are not allowed to access the Internet. I wonder whether he would considered posting pashkevils (poster) in all the synagogues to spread the word around that the traditional cholent is bad for one’s health.
But let’s leave the cholent aside for the moment. I frequently visit the Geula neighborhood in Jerusalem, because my GP is haredi and has his clinic there. I recently visited the clinic for a blood test while fasting, and forgot to bring with me from home something to eat after the test. I went up and down the main street in Geula looking for something to eat, and all I could find were all sorts of fast food stands, selling junk food. I finally made do with a vegetarian pizza which turned out to be saturated with oil. I would have given anything for a corned-beef sandwich, or even a McDonald’s, but there were none to be found. Litzman: before you attack McDonald’s, take a look at what goes on in your own back yard! But to return to the causes of obesity. Within the framework of the battle against obesity one should not ignore junk food. However, I am a strong believer in the principle that while what you eat is important, how much you eat is just as important.
I frequently have lunch at the Knesset cafeteria (where the subsidized food is pretty good), and at a pleasant eatery on the Givat Ram Hebrew University Campus, which serves inexpensive and homey (Mizrahi) food. In both locations the meat/poultry/fish serving is fixed, but one can take as many side servings as one’s plate will hold. I frequently stand in awe, watching what people pile onto their dishes, which may include three different carbohydrates – potatoes, rice and pasta – plus My late mother, from whom I inherited a conscientiousness regarding balanced eating, used to comment that most Israelis seemed to have a starvation complex.
In the post-Second World War years this was certainly understandable. Today it is not.
Just to demonstrate the accuracy of what I am saying, I should like to return to McDonald’s. Back in 2003 New York film maker Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s – breakfast, lunch and dinner – for 30 days.
He ate everything on the menu, ordering giant portions, and avoided all exercise. The results were as expected.
Spurlock, who at the beginning of the experiment weighed 84 kg., gained 11.1 kg., a 13 percent body mass increase, increased his cholesterol to 230 mg/dL and experienced mood swings, sexual dysfunction and fat accumulation in his liver. It took him 14 months to lose the weight gained from his experiment. If this isn’t damning evidence, what is? Well, in the first place, had Spurlock followed any other gluttonous diet – whether made up of gourmet food, vegetarian food or even vegan food – the medical results would not have been any better. Eating too much anything is simply bad for you. Last week a hapless autistic person died of drinking too much water! But while everyone remembers Spurlock’s experiment, another experiment which was carried out the following year, and also involved McDonald’s food, proved the exact opposite of what the first experiment appeared to prove. In the second experiment John Cisna, a high school science teacher from Colo, Iowa, who weighed 130 kg. at the beginning of the experiment, ate nothing but McDonald’s for six months. However, unlike Spurlock he kept his intake of food to 2,000 calories per day, followed the recommended allowances for carbohydrates, proteins, sugar and fat, and walked 45 minutes a day. At the end of the six months he had lost 26 kg., lowered his cholesterol and lost a total of 21 inches off his chest, waist and hips.
I rest my case.
And just as a prologue – the Mimouna, celebrated after Passover, is another culinary disaster, in which an excessive quantity of sweets are consumed. Again, a problem of quantity rather than quality.
The writer is a political scientist and a retired Knesset employee.