Jewish gatherings are synonymous with food—good, nostalgic food, and lots of it. With the High Holidays almost upon us, we’ll all be prone to eating too much, and eating the wrong things, unless we’re diligent about what we put on our plates. Even those of us with the strongest willpower have been known to wither in the face of a grandmother scooping brisket and potatoes onto our plates while she says, “You’re too skinny! Eat something!”
As difficult as it might seem, it is possible to enjoy the holiday’s traditional meals—with their spiritual connections to God and family, as well as the foods you remember so fondly—without sacrificing good nutrition or putting on several pounds. Each holiday presents its own set of dilemmas for those of us who are trying to make smart food choices and stay in shape. But each dilemma also has a solution to help make this New Year a sweet one.
Overeating at enormous, late-night meals seems to be an integral part of holiday observance for many people. Some starve themselves during the day, figuring it’ll balance out the large dinner they know is coming—but this actually makes them hungrier and prone to eat even more once the brisket is served. To avoid this problem, eat a healthy snack before you leave home, within an hour before your meal. Something as simple as one tablespoon of natural peanut or almond butter with an apple or some celery, a small Israeli salad with two tablespoons of hummus, or another protein-and-fiber combination can help keep you satisfied.
Once the meal starts, we say blessings over a variety of fruits and vegetables—for some, it may be the most produce we have tasted all year. And this, too, can help prevent overeating. Fruits and vegetables have a high water and fiber content, allowing us to begin feeling full before we get to the heavier foods later on in the meal. Time is on your side: It takes about 20 minutes for the hormones in your gut, such as CCK (cholecystokinin), to send messages to your brain that you are full. The longer you spend on your blessings, the fuller you will be at the meal, which will help you combat the urge to dump three ladles full of Mom’s legendary rice pilaf onto your dinner plate.
Of course, you can’t have complete control over what is served at dinner, especially if you’re eating at someone else’s house. But you can still use your plate to help you maintain portion control and nutritional balance. Imagine it divided into three sections and fill one quarter with protein (a lean protein like chicken or fish, if possible, rather than fatty brisket), one quarter whole-grain starch (which includes potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, corn, and peas), and the other half of the plate with non-starchy vegetables. Start by eating the vegetables, then the protein, and finally the starch. The more time you take to chew, put down your fork, take a sip of water, or converse with relatives at the meal, the more you will feel full and the less you will eat.
The holiday itself involves fasting, but people still run into problems both before the fast starts and after it ends.
To prepare for the fast, start planning at least two days before Yom Kippur. First and foremost, drink up. Hydration is the major factor in preparing for a fast and the culprit behind most symptoms of fatigue, dizziness, nausea, and dry mouth during the fast. In addition to drinking water, eat lots of fruits and vegetables with high water content like cucumbers, bell peppers, celery, watermelon, and strawberries.
Fruits and vegetables not only allow you to absorb more water, but they also help increase quality carbohydrate intake. Complex carbs, or whole-grain sources, are made up of fiber, which keeps you full. It allows the sugars from the carbohydrates to be released more slowly in the bloodstream, giving you a steady stream of energy after you’ve eaten, versus a sudden burst and crash within the early hours of your fast. If you won’t eat whole grains, opt for starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, which deliver fiber and potassium—an electrolyte lost during dehydration that also helps to regulate blood pressure, which drops while fasting. Our stores of glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrates, also deplete during the long hours of a fast. But after the glycogen is depleted, our protein stores are used, which is why it is important to eat quality protein before a fast, along with a helping of healthy fat, the last nutrient to be utilized for energy.
And while you’re increasing your pre-fast intake of these helpful items, there’s one thing you should decrease: caffeine. It’s addictive, and suddenly cutting out coffee and tea for a day can lead to withdrawal: headaches, irritability, and other symptoms. But if you minimize your caffeine intake a few days in advance, you’ll suffer fewer severe symptoms on Yom Kippur itself.
The worst pitfalls, however, come once the fast is over, when we tend to make poor food and drink choices. Before you run out for a hamburger or a plate of pasta or a pizza, think about smarter options.
The first thing you should be reaching for is a tall glass of water to fight dehydration and soothe many physical symptoms resulting from the fast. Coconut water may also be helpful in replenishing potassium levels, an electrolyte lost during your fast. Next, reach for fruits and vegetables with high water content, vitamins and minerals to replenish electrolytes, and easily digestible carbohydrates. Great choices are watermelon, grapes, and honeydew, along with a green salad. Avoid acidic fruits like grapefruit, which may cause stomach discomfort.
Now that you’ve prepped your digestive system for some real food, look for complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, beans, chickpeas, and whole grains. Not only will they refuel your energy stores, but some of these complex carbs are also high in nutrients like vitamins A and C, potassium, magnesium, folate, and beta-carotene. Top it off with a high-quality protein. This could be something as simple as eggs; with six grams of protein and nine essential amino acids, eggs take little energy to prepare and digest. Be sure to eat and drink slowly after fasting, resisting the urge to binge; filling up too quickly can lead to stomach problems.
The potential pitfalls during Sukkot are similar to those during Rosh Hashanah: big family meals with lots of delicious food. But this time, the meals last for eight days, wearing down even the strongest person’s resolve.
The meals in the sukkah often also include alcohol. It’s OK to enjoy a glass or two of wine a day, but try not to go overboard. Not only is wine full of sugar, but it also affects the rest of your eating habits.
Alcohol makes you feel hungry because it lowers your blood sugar. It also lowers your inhibitions, so it is harder to make a tough call and pass over the extra piece of challah by your place setting. So, if you would like to enjoy a drink without overeating at your meal, save it for the end and drink it on a full stomach. Red wine is the smartest option: The antioxidant resveratrol, found on the skin of red grapes, protects cells from oxidative damage, promotes vasodilation of blood vessels, and inhibits platelet aggregation and smooth muscle proliferation. In short, it is anti-inflammatory and decreases the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of arteries). If you’re looking for a different kind of drink in the sukkah, stick to light beers or hard liquors, as straight as you can take them; adding mixers such as syrups, sodas, and juices adds a lot of calories.
In the end, the High Holidays come with a long list of potential pitfalls when it comes to health and nutrition. So, instead of focusing on the frenzy of food in a negative way, take advantage of the positive aspects of the holidays that can work in favor of your health: conversing with family, walking to and from synagogue and meals, communing with friends, praying, and, of course, some good food. Just don’t eat so much that you need a shofar blast to rouse you from your holiday food coma.
Beth Warren is a registered dietitian and author of the book Living a Real Life with Real Food: How to Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Stay Energized—the Kosher Way.