The 23-Day Challenge

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28 Aug 2018

We are now focusing on the approaching Yom HaDin.  And as much as this is a time for spiritual preparation, it is also a time when practical preparation for the upcoming 23 days beginning with Rosh Hashanah can go a long way toward preserving our health.  This time period also includes Yom Kippur, Succos, Chol HaMoed and Simchas Torah and can have a negative effect on our health if we allow it to.  However, with a little bit of planning and a lot of portion control, this period in our calendar can be as meaningful as it is meant to be and our Gashmius (physicality) can indeed be used to enhance our Ruchnius (spirituality). 

There are essentially three areas where we all tend to get into trouble. One – the amounts of food we consume sitting at our tables for our festive meals, two – the types of food we eat, and three – the general lack of activity and exercise during the Chagim.  Of these, the most difficult to tackle tend to be the amounts of food we end up eating for more than three weeks.   As we spend a lot of time around the table and in the Succah, this is where much of the damage occurs.  So let’s take a look at portion control, how important is it and how can we accomplish it?

The problem of larger than normal portions

Over the decades, you can easily see how much more we are consuming on Shabbos and Yom Tov.  Just look at the size of our plates and the number of courses involved in every meal.  We live in the generation of plenty and more and more people can afford to buy more food.  Couple this with the great availability of prepared foods and the sizes they come in and our portions have probably increased by close to a third over the last 25-30 years. 

Studies show that increases in portion sizes over time has led to a significant increase in the number of overweight and obese individuals. This is known as the portion size effect. It’s not just that we eat more than we need at any given meal, but we are overeating over long periods of time.  Unfortunately, much of the foods we overeat at the time of the year are calorie dense, like sweet kugels, kneidlach, honey cake, and the many other desserts we consume. Even when eating the Simanin (symbolic foods) at the beginning of our first Rosh Hashanah meal, as healthy as those foods are, if we eat too much, it adds up to too many calories.

Studies have provided evidence linking over-consumption of food to unhealthy weight gain.  This led to the World Health Organization in 2014 to suggest that limiting portion sizes could help reduce the risk of unhealthy weight gain.   We live in an environment that promotes large portion sizes, it is therefore essential that we understand the fundamentals of portion control.  A recent review published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society by researchers in the United Kingdom and the United States have looked at the potential causes and influences leading to the portion size effect and the long-term effects of larger portion sizes.

It doesn’t take major overeating to have a negative effect.  If someone eats about 400 calories more a day than they need, and they do this daily, they will be gaining a kilo (2.2 pounds) every 18 days!  Basically, portion size affects energy balance, so an increase in portion size results in weight gain over time if no other measures are taken to balance out the increased energy intake.  Studies have shown that individuals respond differently to palatable foods in large portions, with some more susceptible than others. With high-calorie foods being more attractive in terms of taste and pleasure, compared to low-energy-density foods such as fruit, vegetables and lean protein, children are especially susceptible to consuming larger than normal portions.   Therefore, parents should be vigilant and watch over portion sizes for high-energy-density foods as a strategy to promote healthier eating habits. This shows clearly the relationship between portion size, energy density, liking particular foods and individual eating traits.

Portions keep getting bigger

Compared to the 1950s, the portion sizes have significantly increased. The US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has tracked American consumer trend changes. For example, a typical burger size has increased from 333 kcal to 590 kcal and chips (french fries) from 210 kcal to 610 kcal. The issue is that as the trends have changed, the general population have become familiar with and see these larger portion sizes as normal or typical. Some also argue that this exposure to larger portion sizes leads to the sizes becoming normal, resulting in people expecting the larger portion sizes.

Keep in mind that this is coming together with less and less activity.  We also eat out and buy take-out food as opposed to cooking more and eating in.  Restaurants, fast food establishments and take out places all compete with each other based on the amount of food they are giving for the money.  So if you are of the mindset that you MUST get your money’s worth and finish all that is served to you, then you will put on weight when eating out or eating take out food. 

Eat more to lose weight?

Does it make sense for me to suggest to you that you eat more when we are saying that portion sizes are too big?  Well yes, and no.  The “yes” is that if you eat planned and controlled snacks in between your meals, you will be less likely to overeat at the meals.  It will reduce your hunger and regulate your release of the hormone insulin.  On the other hand,  unhealthy and uncontrolled snacking can cause us to gain weight.  So it’s up to us to make sure our snacks and the snacks we give our children are portion controlled. 

Make a plan

The single most important thing you can do to get through these 23 days with your weight and health intact is to plan! Just as you are planning the Chagim and your menus and guest lists in advance, you can also plan your meals so that you are not left overly hungry. Plan you daily menus, shopping and snacks so that you have plenty of healthy options and you don’t skip meals.  Your portion sizes can also be worked on ahead of time.  Remember, half of your plate should be vegetables, both raw and cooked.  Your proteins, carbs and fats can make up the other half of your place.  Drink lots of water so you are hydrated and feel full. 

V’samachta V’chagecha–the Yomim Tovim are a time to be especially joyful and happy, and to celebrate together with our families.  We don’t need to create more stress in our lives than we already have.  So, instead of saying “After the holidays”, resolve to get started with good and healthful habits right now.  Watch your serving sizes, eat healthful choices. There will be days when you just can’t exercise, but staying as active as possible has a lot of value too.   This is also the time to decide that the coming year can be one of better health habits.  Decide now to add a positive change in your exercise habits and also do something to better your eating.  This coming year, make healthy decisions that will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.” 

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.