Dr. Robert Schwartz carefully contemplates the croissant on his plate. He cradles it in his hands, exploring its consistency and contours. He turns it upside down, holding it up to the morning light, and takes a bite. With all the seriousness of a jeweler examining a precious gem, he lifts his head and declares simply, “I expected more.”
Nonplussed and mildly disappointed, he looks around the bistro to the other diners gathered here on this breezy Sunday morning. Is their food any better? Or are their cupcakes and muffins just as empty, loveless in the trappings of a decadent treat that doesn’t live up to its reputation?
It’s these types of existential questions that Schwartz, 63, finds most pressing these days. His new book, "Holy Eating: The Spiritual Secret to Eternal Weight Loss," is a paean to the Old Testament as foodie’s bible.
The book may seem like a departure for the psychologist. After all, he’s a student of the famed Kinsey Institute and runs one of the largest sex therapy centers in the country. But after speaking with him, and watching him engage that croissant, you begin to notice that he doesn’t see food as just something we eat, but rather as nourishment for the soul. He wasn’t focused only on the physical quality of the food, but more on the food as a source of spiritual energy.
Schwartz has actually been working toward this book, his first, for nearly seven years. Clients would ask the doctor how to lose weight. His response? Psychology hasn’t come up with a good answer for that, but when you find out, let him know.
As a psychologist, he knew what made the brain tick. Depression and anxiety, for example, can lead to weight gain. People would go on diets but, as Schwartz points out, “95 percent of the people regain the weight.” Schwartz himself went through this yo-yo experience: At one point, he lost 20 pounds — but later gained back 30.
The turning point came when he was talking with a colleague about addiction. “I realized I was addicted to food,” Schwartz says, pointing at the discarded croissant. “It occurred to me that that’s not in alignment with living a spiritual life. I was serving food — in more sense than one.”
Schwartz, an active member of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, turned to the Bible for answers and asked himself a simple question: What would Moses eat? “All of a sudden, everything started to pop out at me,” he says. He points to the very first story in Genesis — where Adam and Eve are punished for eating the wrong type of food — down to Deuteronomy, where people are chastised for being obese (32:15).
Throughout the Old Testament, Schwartz continued to find examples of God’s prescription for healthy eating habits. Those who craved meat in the desert were given a daily dose of quail for a month, but were reprimanded for eating meat in excess (Numbers 11:33-34). In another incident, those who collected more manna than they needed for a daily portion saw their surplus turn putrid (Exodus 16:20).
Schwartz doesn’t see his book as an addition to the ever-growing canon of diet guides. Indeed, he doesn’t even believe diets actually work. As an adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where he teaches and supervises psychiatry residents and medical students, he should know.
Instead, he sees the key to weight loss as a paradigm shift in thinking: viewing eating as an act of holiness. “The focus is more on elevating your spirit than by losing the weight. By getting more in alignment with God’s will, you're gaining in positivity and the pounds are shed as a consequence of that.”
According to Schwartz, now at his goal weight and reasonably fit, “Eating with spirituality involves a recognition that one is partaking in the divine gift of food that comes from God for the purpose of maintaining a healthy body to fulfill one’s life task. When life was simpler, this connection came more naturally, but with the advent of technology, affluence and fast food, this bond has become more remote and tenuous.”
Schwartz is by no means the first to bridge the gap between cookbooks and the Good Book. Rick Warren, the pastor of a 30,000-member megachurch in Orange County, Calif., recently introduced the biblically infused "Daniel Diet" with the medical backing of Dr. Oz. Religious-themed weight-loss books like "The Maker’s Diet" and "What Would Jesus Eat?" are just two from a growing cottage industry in the field. And the religious sect of the Black Hebrews has long been extolling the virtues of a diet based on basic Bible ingredients. (The group is famous for not eating anything with sugar in it, for example.)
“The Bible has a great deal to say about what foods should be eaten or avoided. But it also has a lot to say about how these permitted foods should be eaten,” Schwartz points out. “The first sin was Adam and Eve eating prohibited fruit. They ate in disobedience to God. Thus the spiritual journey of humanity begins with an act of eating. Obviously morality doesn’t end there, but if we can’t master the first step, how will we control other impulses?”
And this is where Schwartz brings the topic back to his psychological specialty: sex.
“Sexuality is overly focused on the physical,” he explains. “Even sex therapy, in its original form, focused on sensation. When I work with people on that, I help them to try incorporate their sexual life into their spirituality and to recognize that sexuality is primarily a way of communicating love. I call it holy sex.”
As for his "Holy Eating" book, Schwartz hopes readers achieve their goals for weight transformation in a way that is more focused not on giving up certain foods, but rather on celebrating those joyful experiences. “The focus is more on elevating your spirit than losing the weight,” he says.
He realizes what he just said, picks up the croissant, and takes another bite.