Physical Health

How to Survive the Jewish Food Culture

October 19, 2012

This article is being written after Shabbat, Parshat Bereishit, although you may be reading this a few weeks later. Today in shuls all over the world, there were kiddushes to celebrate the Chosson Torah and Chosson Bereshit after Simchat Torah.

Food as celebration is nothing new to the Jewish people. After all, it is a mitzvah (commandment) to eat three meals on Shabbat, to include meat on Yom Tov (the holidays), to make kiddush, a blessing, on wine and to wash and eat challah (bread) at a seudat mitzvah (festive meal). There is no simcha (happiness) without meat and wine, say Chazal (our sages), and there are special foods for every holiday.

But we have lost our way. Eating food as part of any celebration is just fine, but once again today, I sat at a kiddush where the menu consisted of cakes, cookies, Yerushalmi kugel, potato kugel (extra oil, no charge), chulent (even more extra oil) and sugary drinks (not a bottle of water to be found). And then you know what? After we hear the divrei Torah (words of Torah), we go home and eat a whole meal. Another one.

Something has gone wrong. As wonderful as any celebratory kiddush or seudah is, these foods, especially when consumed in mass quantities, will make us sick over the long term.

This over-consumption of food is no small problem in a culture such as ours. In any given week we may attend multiple simchas. We could attend a few weddings, bar mitzvahs (religious initiation ceremony of a Jewish boy who has reached the age of 13), brises (ceremonies of circumcision), engagements, pidyon habens (redemption of the firstborn) and siyums (celebration of the completion of some portion of Torah). As there is seasonality to this, many times of the year we may be occupied with these events all week long.

We can use these occasions as convenient excuses to eat excessively, but as they occur so often, it pays to find ways to deal with them so they don’t negatively affect our health.

We often fool ourselves into thinking that because there is a mitzvah involved, we can eat anything and everything in any amount. False. You are in charge of your health and you are in control of making healthful choices in any situation.

Go to your friend’s kiddush, survey the situation and make smart choices. Make sure to drink only water or seltzer. If you must have a small piece of cake or a couple of cookies to fulfill kiddush b’makom seuda (in the place where you’re eating your meal), try avoid the kugels or chulent (you have that waiting for you at home, you know) and hopefully there will be vegetables or fruits available.

I personally bring my own whole wheat crackers to the shul kiddush on Simchat Torah. You can do that too. Put an apple in your pocket to take with you.

Even if you are in a situation where there are no good choices, you can either choose not to eat there or take the minimum amount of food. Another suggestion: If you know you are going to a lavish kiddush on Shabbat, take two whole-grain challah rolls with you, and after you hear kiddush, wash and make it into your seudah. This way, you don’t end up eating twice.

All-or-nothing thinking is one of the “distorted thoughts” cited by behavioral psychologists Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis. Does going to a simcha and enjoying ourselves need to fall into the “all-or-nothing” category? Is it possible to partake in a kiddush or wedding or other simcha and enjoy the occasion without causing harm to ourselves? Most definitely!

Here are a few suggestions for your weekday simchas from Lose It! nutritionist Elisheva Rosenberg:

Before the Simcha

  • Do NOT starve all day; eat light choices such as vegetable stir fry, a large omelet, light bread sandwiches, or a cottage cheese/tuna filled baked potato. You know what fills YOU up with smaller portions.

At the Simcha

  • Expect a late start unless told otherwise. Have emergency food with you! Almonds, an apple, two whole grain crackers and peanut butter, even take a thermos of vegetable soup in the car. Don’t come to the affair hungry or you may lose control at the reception and/or meal.

At the Meal

  • At a wedding, spend more time on the dance floor being mesameach chosson v’kallah, making the bride and groom happy. You will eat less food and burn more calories at the same time.
  • At the meal, choose wisely: avoid anything swimming in oil, anything deep-fried and any borekas or pastries. You can ask for more undressed salads, water, sauce on the side, and so on. Be aware of how much you have left on your daily food allowance and remember that vegetables go a long way.
  • Dessert? Isn’t it late already? As a rule, it (almost) never tastes as good as it looks. Better to have a small taste or skip It altogether. Also, with pareve desserts, watch out for the trans fats: they raise cholesterol and clogs arteries. Fruit is fine if you are still hungry.
  • Don’t forget to:
    • Eat sitting down.
    • Eat slowly, savoring every mouthful.
    • Stop when satisfied. Remember you will eat again! You can even eat when you get home if you have very few choices–the simcha is about so much more than the food served and eaten or not eaten.

As a society, we have made a lot of progress in discouraging smoking cigarettes. We still have a long way to go in that area, but more and more of us never start or have quit. We understand the harm done by smoking and no shortage of poskim (a legal scholar who decides Jewish law) have stated unequivocally that it is prohibited.

Yet, the second most preventable cause of death today is the combination of overeating, poor diet and sedentary lifestyle. This is real. The ramifications to our health by overeating aren’t a secret. Being overweight can cause type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, higher risk for cancer and high cholesterol. The extra weight can cause damage to our muscular-skeletal system and can result in sore knees, lower back pain and overall discomfort from lugging around more than our bodies can handle.

Whether you are at a kiddush, a seudah, or just your everyday eating, there is no mitzvah to overeat—ever!

 

Get tips from a certified nutritionist on how to keep your Shabbat eating under control.

 

Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. certified personal trainer and a lifestyle fitness coach with over 17 years of professional experience. He is the co-director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress reduction center Lose It!  He can be reached at (U.S. Line) 516-568-5027, 02-651-8502 or by email at alan@loseit.co.il.