What Diet Coke Taught Me About Food Tshuvah

diet-coke-necklace.jpg

I like Diet Coke. Okay, let’s be fair – I really like Diet Coke.

As my main source of caffeine, it was as much a part of my image in rabbinical school as the midrash books I schlepped around. When I got pregnant, the first question some of my friends asked was, “How are you going to go without Diet Coke for 9 months?” (Answer: I found an OB who let me drink it.) I can drink a 2 litre bottle at one sitting and I can tell the difference between Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi blind. It’s well…I wouldn’t quite call it an addiction, but I’m definitely hooked.

However, when my brain is not addled with the need for a rush of Aspartame, I know that drinking Diet Coke—especially in such quantities—is a problem on all kinds of levels. In a way, Diet Coke is the ultimate symbol of our food system in crisis: water dyed with color, saturated with caffeine and an artificial sweetener, poured into plastic, and trucked thousands of miles to your home.

It’s only sustainable if what you are trying to sustain is corporate profits. And then there is the carbon footprint. As Grist wrote in response to the pleas of another environmentally tormented diet pop addict (apparently I am not alone), drinking several cans of soda a day for a year is equivalent to flying round-trip from New York to Cleveland. This summer, knowing that drinking Diet Coke does not fit in well with the rest of my sustainable, environmentally friendly food values, I tried to do teshuva (repentance); I tried to give up Diet Coke.

How have I done? I’m not sure. On the plus side, I stopped bringing it into the house. I invested in lovely fair trade loose tea (and learned the hard way that tea has a lot more caffeine than Diet Coke), which produced lovely biodegradable trash. I drank more water. I’ve saved money and had a lot less plastic recycling. But, Diet Coke remains the first thing I order when I go out to eat. And, absence truly makes the heart grow fonder—I can drink 3 cans in an afternoon at my parents’ house without even thinking about it.

What does it mean to do teshuva for the food we consume? Right now, we are in the Jewish month of Elul, the time of year when we are supposed to consider our actions, repent for what we have done, and make amends so that we can start over. The word teshuva means to return—to go back to the beginning to try again. The daily morning sound of the shofar this month is a constant reminder that each day we have a chance to change our lives just a little bit.

Where do sins of consumption fit it? The traditional confession on Yom Kippur includes one for sins of food and drink, but it doesn’t specify what that means. The rabbis of the Talmud also understood true teshuvah to mean repentance in which one doesn’t plan to commit the offensive action again. Of course, we don’t place unsustainable, mindless eating in the same category as stealing or cheating. Who does it hurt, after all, if I eat just one more fried, reconstituted chicken nugget? So, the incremental way many of us change our eating habits might simply not be fast enough to qualify as teshuva.

I think this is a false sense of security. What if every time we ate, we contemplated our impact on our world? What if we really believed that every bottle of Diet Coke was a type of sin? The rabbis categorized our wrongdoing as either between a person and God, or between fellow people. Food sins, rather than being benign, could be seen as both: wastes of the bounty of God’s creation and destructive to the fragile environment that we share with other.

Maybe that’s too much to think about with every drink, too much guilt in every meal – but if we did think that way, we’d eat differently. Maybe it is a change in mindset that is the real teshuva, a change that we can make with the clear desire to not repeat our mindless eating of the past. In the new year, we can learn to see our food as part of a broader way of life. It is not the food itself, after all, that is a sin (laws of kashrut aside): it is the mindless, wasteful way we consume it as though we were the only person in the world that matters. Our teshuva reminds us that we are not the center of the universe.

So, as I head into the High Holidays, I hope to return to a new place, a more mindful place, grateful for the food I eat and determined to be more mindful of the impact of what I can consume. My food teshuvah begins with making certain items, like Diet Coke, more and more into occasional foods, aiming to eat in a more sustainable way, and not taking the food I eat for granted.

And maybe in 5769, I can break my Kraft dinner habit.
Shanah Tovah!

Out of curiosity, what would you describe as your “food sins?” And how might you plan to do food teshuva this year?

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59 Responses to “What Diet Coke Taught Me About Food Tshuvah”

  1. lauren ahkiam Says:

    i never cottoned to the diet taste, but i love love love sugary fizzy drinks. i also have tried to keep away by never buying them for my house, but have a remarkable ability to drink my weight in soda at free-refill places so have made a “rule” that i can only drink soda with real sugar. it’s harder to come by and is never available in free refills. mostly it’s either from mexico or natural (e.g. reed’s ginger brew).

    but the more food sin would be that i feel guilty for eating factory-farmed eggs and dairy. i’ve been a vegetarian for almost 20 years, but have had an awful time weeding these out of my diet. i don’t eat much cheese, but i do eat some, and though it’s RBGH-free, it’s not from small trustworthy dairy farmers. i buy “cage-free organic” eggs, but who really knows? i’d rather get both at the farmer’s market, but i’m too forgetful or lazy to actually do it. sigh. maybe i will use this month to do a teshuva and make a new habit.

  2. stacey Says:

    I love this post. Probably because I too eat as consciously as I can – vegan, co-op & farmers market shopper, local seasonal produce for my home – with a nagging Diet Coke habit that I kick from time to time, has definitely gone down over the years, but tends to increase at my parents’ kitchen table. And, in a bit of skewed logic, I will always choose a bottle of Diet Coke over a bottle of water – lest the corporations think I agree with the bottling, transporting and selling such a thing.

    I’m looking at this post and “Kashrut has no God” and seeing the comparison of weighing our actions. I was thinking to comment on that post about the default – whether the default is to keep kosher with exceptions and conversations made for when it is not kept or whether the default is to eat as one wants, but to acknowledge those times when one chooses to follow kashrut.

    But, from reading your post and your thoughts on mindful eating, I think the ideal is neither of those and that we should not just be aware of when we are eating “right” or “wrong” but are equally aware of both and know when we can steer our wrong choices into the right. Thank you for the reminder that we do make our choices every day and especially for the reminder not to take our food for granted.

    And to answer your question, I view not just my occasional Diet Coke, but also the occasional orange or banana as an egregious sin, which makes me realize that perhaps my greater wrongdoing is the too lofty attitude in which I approach my food choices and their impact. So I will acknowledge the good and the bad choices I make, but I will also remember that it is only because I am blessed with sufficient resources that I can make these choices – small or large farms, meat or not, organic or conventional – and that many people eat merely for sustenance and don’t have these options.

  3. Michael Croland Says:

    Rabbi Kahn-Troster, I loved this piece! I would’ve said so sooner, but I wanted to wait until I could share this link: http://prime.peta.org/2008/09/.....d-teshuvah (or if that doesn’t work: http://tinyurl.com/3smt9e). It’s my guest post on the PETA Prime blog, in which I quoted you and went with your theme to discuss another “food teshuvah” topic.

    Shana tova!

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