Nutrition is a highly personal matter; what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. The same applies for different cultures. So, while the rate of obesity is actually lower in the frum community as compared to the national average, being frum does present specific challenges. I’d like to point out a few challenges that frum Jews face in the area of nutrition, but also some benefits. By understanding how our religion and culture influence our health, you could begin using them to your advantage while staying clear of those things that are to your disadvantage.
Calcium is one of the most important parts of any diet. The most common source of calcium is of course, dairy products. That’s where we Jews run into problems: we are rarely milchigs! Anytime we eat a piece of meat or poultry, all dairy is off limits for 6 hours. Calcium deficiency causes a whole host of problems, but weakening of the bones is the most common. It’s no wonder then, that Jews have a higher rate of osteoporosis than any other society. But calcium alone is not enough. Our body needs to absorb it properly and sunlight provides the nutrient (vitamin D) our body needs to absorb calcium. It’s no secret that Jews don’t spend an enormous amount of time in the sun. We are either in yeshiva, or at jobs that are mostly indoors, and even when we do venture outdoors, we are properly covered in the Torah prescribed modest fashion. And so not only are we not getting as much calcium as we should, we are not getting the nutrient necessary to absorb what little calcium we do get!
Another big issue that we face is our calendar. Once a week we are mandated to eat three meals, even one of which is a nightmare to our health! From the fish and kugel to the cholent and kishka we spend close to 15% of our week eating foods that are very unhealthy in quantities that seem to defy the laws of nature. This is not to mention the two times a year that we spend an entire week eating! One might think that our calendar makes up for this overindulgence by the six days out of the year that we are mandated to fast, but precisely the opposite is true. In an effort to get through the fast we eat large quantities of food the entire day before, and after the fast we spend another day playing catch up. In fact, in my experience I’ve found that people who aren’t careful actually gain an average of three pounds each year due to taaneisim!
One of the key reasons that nutrition and health are not taken seriously in our community is that nutrition and health are not taken seriously in our community! Fitness and appearance are generally considered unimportant and even vain (and rightfully so). The problem is, however, that we are throwing out the baby with the bath water, because health is a big deal. The fact that we are not that concerned with our outer appearances could actually serve us very well in our pursuit of health because we are free to pursue real healthy lifestyles without being distracted by diets and gimmicks which are often dangerous and unattainable. But we cannot ignore the fact that our health is our most important asset and we need to protect it.
Before we eat in a restaurant or buy food in a bakery, we always ask the owner what his hashgacha is, so why not ask him how often he changes the oil in his deep fryer? The truth is, as I said before, being frum and healthy may have its challenges but it also has its advantages. Kosher food, especially fast food, is not as readily available and so we are restricted in our opportunities to eat unhealthy food. Stop by a rest stop along a highway and see the countless unhealthy food chains that are filled with travelers eating a supersize meal, with a supersize fries (which by the way are quite possibly the worst food you could eat) while gulping a supersize soda. As a frum Jew you will have to settle for a coffee and a bag of peanuts, or even better, nothing at all.
In addition, many of the least healthy foods in the world are not kosher. We may not eat several types of meat, and many of the fish that are especially unhealthy are not kosher either. In fact the only class of foods that is entirely kosher is also the healthiest i.e. plants! As observant Jews we have a major advantage in self-control. Since we were children we were always told what we can and cannot do, what we can and cannot eat. So why not extend our self-control to another area of utmost importance in the Torah – our personal health and well-being. You would never think of buying a product without first checking the label for a kosher symbol, so while you’re looking for that OU why not take a quick peek at the nutrition information too. Before we eat in a restaurant or buy food in a bakery, we always ask the owner what his hashgacha is, so why not ask him how often he changes the oil in his deep fryer? (The answer to that one will probably terrify you, so instead maybe just ask him what items on his menu are healthy). You can see how easy it is to manage your health by simply being aware of what’s out there. The next time you go shopping for Shabbos, you’ll be sure to buy more p’tcha and less herring!
There are many ways to eat healthy on Shabbos (and Yom Tov) without compromising that heimish Shabbos flavor. Learn what ingredients go into your food and figure out how you could substitute some of the less healthy ones for healthier alternatives. With millions of kosher products available it may seem a daunting task to try to figure out which ones are good for us. But understanding the principles of healthy living and being aware of how our unique way of life pertains to our health will go a long way to achieving success.