In an era with more kosher for Passover foods than you could shake a potato stick at, we’re often left with sluggish digestive systems, expanding waistlines and deflated willpower. There’s got to be another way!
Make this Pesach different from all of the others. Two seasoned nutritionists weigh in on how you don’t have to resign yourself to a week-long stomach-stuffing-potato-dominated diet. In fact, this Pesach could prove to be your most healthful and satisfying yet.
Apparently, reeducating one’s palate starts with the brain. According to Shmuel Shields, a Queens-based nutritionist, the frum community falls prey to the same unhealthy eating habits as the rest of America’s fast-food population. Rectifying the dilemma requires two essential ingredients – desire and knowledge.
“There’s a great need for education in our community,” says Shields, author of L’Chaim: 18 Chapters to Live By, who reports that with all the research about the importance of good nutrition today, implementing that knowledge has been a challenge. He should know; he’s been counseling clients for over two decades – year-round and Pesach.
Shields says the primary culinary culprits (particularly on yom tov) include sugar, artificial sweeteners, fatty protein, fried foods, processed carbohydrates, and the lack of grains, fruits, and vegetables. With Pesach’s restrictions, the kosher consumer has to exercise even greater vigilance.
“Pesach is a high-carbohydrate holiday,” says Shields. “For people who have weight and blood sugar issues it’s a real challenge.” Evidently, that population is growing. “I’m noticing elevated cholesterol and obesity in much younger individuals now, including children.”
Yael Bleicher, a clinical dietician from Elizabeth, New Jersey, stresses that the most effective way to educate children in nutritional eating is through example. “If the parents eat cake and junk food, it’s hard to tell the children they can’t,” she says. And if you want these lessons to stick, why wait until Pesach? Start modeling them now.
“Introduce fruit as a dessert at mealtimes and save the cookies and cake for special occasions like Shabbat and yom tov,” says Bleicher. So they still won’t eat their broccoli and spinach? Try again. “Research has shown that children require multiple exposures to foods. Expose them to it via a different cooking method or with different spices, or less spices.” She discourages the common tactic of “hiding” the undesired healthful foods inside other dishes. “If we hide the fruits and vegetables in our recipes, like putting mashed up cauliflower in the meatloaf, you may have succeeded in getting a vegetable in the kids, but you’re not teaching them healthful eating for life.”
De-Stressing the Digestive System
On the Seder nights one can’t avoid the nutritional no-no of eating a major meal so late. Shields recommends controlling one’s food intake by starting the meal with soup and filling up on salads and vegetables.
Bleicher offers a useful tip to avoid overeating at the first Seder meal. “Eat a good breakfast and a filling lunch so that the family isn’t starving when it’s time for the Seder and you don’t risk getting sick drinking wine and eating maror on an empty stomach.” And she doesn’t mean downing a can of chocolate chip macaroons and kosher for Passover orange soda. “Don’t fill up on carbs which will quickly make you hungry again. Lean protein, fruits and vegetables make us feel full longer.”
She proposes a surefire way to avoid overindulging during chol hamoed and the closing days’ seudot. “Move away from the table. When we continue eating even after feeling satiated, it’s called mindless eating,” says Bleicher. “Emphasize the other parts of the holiday, the family time, doing things together; engage in indoor activities, such as playing games or learning together. During chol hamoed, when the weather is usually nice, take the opportunity to get outside and be more active.”
For both children and adults, daily matza consumption coupled with starch-filled meals often leads to a sluggish digestive system. Bleicher notes that by increasing your fiber consumption during the weeks leading up to Pesach, through eating whole grain breads, cereals, quinoa, barley, oats and beans, you can actually raise the body’s tolerance to matza.
Shields and Bleicher both recommend drinking six to eight glasses of water throughout the chag and eating high-fiber foods, such as prunes and apricots. Shields suggests using matza and matza products made from whole wheat, spelt and oat matzot, as well as incorporating sweet potatoes and acorn squash as alternate starches. “For the Sephardic communities, using more beans, chickpeas, and lentils would increase the fiber content of Pesach meals,” he says. “They are filling and don’t contain a lot of calories.”
And you don’t have to skip yom tov dessert! Shields offers some healthy options such as fruit compote, dried fruit, baked apple, or a piece of 70% dark chocolate, as well as a small serving of nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, and walnuts.
Special Food Issues
As Shields mentioned, those with blood sugar issues need to be cautious about their carbohydrate intake over Pesach. He suggests keeping to the minimum prescribed measurement of matza at the Seder and other holiday meals.
For the gluten-sensitive, a condition known as Celiac disease, Pesach is the ideal yom tov. There are no kosher for Passover foods (except for matza products) that contain gluten, the protein present in wheat, rye, barley and oats. According to Shields, one company currently offers a gluten-free matza. “They figured out a way to remove the gluten from oats,” he says.
While matza can halachically be made from oats or spelt, some authorities recommend replacing traditional wheat matzot with these other grains only in the case of medical need. Spelt and oat matza should not be confused with gluten-free matza-style crackers, which contain no grain and are not halachically considered matza at all. For crackers produced without any grain ingredient one recites the shehakol, not hamotzi or mezonot before eating.
In all cases of medical concern, decisions should be made in close consultation with medical professionals and your rabbi.
Shields and Bleicher concur that good nutrition requires preparation. “Plan to have plenty of nutritious choices on your shopping list that include a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, so they’ll be available when you start cooking for the holiday,” says Shields. He discourages buying sugary, higher calorie beverages due to their lack of nutritional value and the potential hazards of artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors, maintaining that it’s better to drink water before, after, or between meals.
Changing eating habits isn’t easy, especially on yom tov. Nutritionists urge anyone making the transition to welcome the emotional support and encouragement of family
and friends. “If you slip and overeat at one meal, don’t despair,” reassures Shields. “Attempt to make better choices at the next one.” You’ve got a whole week to try!
Labriyut – to your health!
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior staff writer of the Orthodox Union.
Dr. Shmuel Shields Ph.D., is a NYS Certified Nutritionist who works with children and adults. He is the author of L’Chaim: 18 Chapters to Live By. For more information visit
www.drshieldsnutrition.com. He can be contacted at Rmshields62@verizon.net or 718.544.4036.
Yael Bleicher, MS, RD, CSP is a Clinical Dietitian at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. She and her husband, Rabbi Michael Bleicher, rabbi of the Elmora Hills Minyan, live in Elizabeth, NJ, with their two young daughters.
THE DIABETIC’S DILEMMA — A RABBI & NUTRITIONIST WEIGH IN
Over 29 million Americans live with Type 2 diabetes. Diabetes requires significant adjustments to one’s lifestyle, involving careful monitoring of one’s food intake and blood sugar level. Pesach’s carbohydrate-laden rituals and festive meals bring additional challenges to an already challenging situation. Nonetheless, it can be done.
The Four Cups
Although one can find dry wines with low sugar content, the alcohol in wine can induce hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which can be very dangerous. Consequently, diabetics who take insulin may have to adjust their doses. Alcohol could also interact negatively with certain medications. Grape juice, due to its high sugar content (37g carbohydrate per cup), doesn’t offer a viable option.
Fortunately, both wine and grape juice may be diluted with water, minimizing the drawbacks for both. Alternatively, so long as the minimum amount is drunk, one need not drink the entire cup. Because it is halachically preferable to drink the entire cup and not to dilute the wine or grape juice, many will drink the four cups on the Seder night (with their doctor’s approval). If one plans to do so, consuming a high-fiber, high-protein snack just before yom tov could offset a hypoglycemic event. It is also advisable to use a cup that would hold the minimum shiur of wine.
Consult with your doctor to determine which option is the best for you, as well as with your rabbi to ascertain how much water to add to your cups (if this is the advised alternative), and the minimum shiur required for a diabetic to drink.
Matza is a high-carbohydrate food. Diabetics who are trying to control carbohydrate intake may be best off with machine shmurah matza, which lists the carbohydrate content on the box. Here again, diabetics should be aware of the minimum shiurim needed for motzi matza, korech, and afikomen, respectively, and keep any extra matza eating to a minimum. Since fiber can improve blood glucose control and help one feel fuller, whole wheat matza is preferable.
Some diabetics who take insulin must administer their dose within a specific time before eating. However, the timing of motzi matza and shulchan orech can be difficult to predict. Make sure to consult with your doctor about how to best adjust your medication before the Seder to adapt to the change in schedule and menu.
For diabetics, every morsel of food must be carefully measured; snacking and unconscious eating can wreak havoc with glucose control. Make sure that you leave each meal fully satisfied. Eating high fiber foods slows digestion and makes us feel full. Yom tov meals should contain an appealing choice of non-starchy vegetables. Good in-between meal snacks include a fruit with some protein, such as low-fat dairy, nuts, or an egg.
With the proper planning and preparation, one can successfully manage his/her diabetes and enjoy every celebrative aspect of the festival.
Rabbi Mordechai Merzel, Marketing Department Director, OU Kosher | Shoshana Merzel, Certified Clinical Dietician