Shabbat and our long-term health

We justify eating this way because Shabbat is only once a week and the eating pattern is fundamentally tied into our traditional religious/cultural life.

August 4, 2014 22:29
4 minute read.

A Romanian deli in Chicago is the type of Jewish establishment hit by the gefilte fish shortage.. (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)

Let’s face it: we all know deep down that our normal Shabbat eating habits might not be the healthiest. We know that the amount and type of foods we are eating is probably not terribly good for us.

We justify eating this way because Shabbat is only once a week and the eating pattern is fundamentally tied into our traditional religious/cultural life.

If you are an Ashkenazi Traditional Jew like me you’re likely eating at least three or four meals during Shabbat. Think about it: your have Friday night dinner, kiddush at synagogue, Shabbat lunch and if you have the tradition, you might even have a third meal (Seudah Shlishit). These meals tend to be sizable and each may include various side and main dishes.

People often say, “Calories do not count on Shabbat.” The reality is that our caloric intake on Shabbat is not just high... it’s astronomical. Recently, for interests’ sake, I decided to plan a normal Shabbat menu and then calculate the total caloric intake for the entire Shabbat. I knew it would be higher than normal, however, once calculated I was shocked at the results. So shocked, I felt obligated to speak out.

Before I share the findings of this gastronomic experiment, there are some essential nutritional facts you need to know.

Firstly, most adults need to consume anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 calories a day. Woman and smaller, less active people need fewer calories. Men and bigger more active people need more calories. If you are eating more than the proper amount of calories for your gender, size and activity level your weight will increase. Being overweight is one of the strongest risk factors for developing heart disease, diabetes and various cancers. The key point here is that consuming too many calories on Shabbat could be affecting our long-term health.

I know that everyone differs in the amount of food they consume on Shabbat.

It is clear to me that some people really binge while others eat more average portions of everything being served. To make my test menu, I decided to calculate the total calories consumed during Shabbat based on what I considered to be an average Shabbat meal plan by an average eater – normal portions of every food offered during each Sabbath meal. Readers out there may argue with my menu, saying it is not representative of what they consume on Shabbat. To this I advise calculating your own menu to see where you are holding.

There are various calorie-counting programs online, which can be used to do this calculation.

As I mentioned, the caloric results of my menu were astounding. The total caloric intake for Shabbat meals (24-hour period) without a third meal was 5,295 calories, and the total caloric intake on Shabbat with a third meal was a gargantuan 6,130 calories. If you consider the “average” eater consumes 6,000+ calories on Shabbat then one must understand that this is two to three times (depending if you are a man or a woman) the amount recommended for the average person. In fact, this comes to an excess of about 3,500 calories each Shabbat. Where will all these extra calories go? They will become unwanted fat.

It is interesting to note that a pound of fat is gained for an excess of 3,500 calories (a kilogram is 7,700). If the person eats Shabbat meals without exercising they will gain a pound a week from Shabbat alone.

Luckily most of us get exercise, and most of us eat much less during the days following Shabbat. Still, we need to be aware of the risks of this overconsumption on Shabbat for our long-term health.

What are the risks? Obesity is a major health concern. It is a risk factor in many diseases. Excess weight equals a greater risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and some cancers later in life. Studies have shown that approximately 20 percent of cancer cases among women and 15% of cancer cases among men can be attributed to obesity. Being overweight at midlife independently increases the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. An analysis of over 40,000 Americans found a correlation between depression and obesity. Obese adults were more likely to have depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions than healthy-weight adults. Obese individuals are also more likely to develop kidney disease than non-obese individuals. Obese adults are up to four times more likely to develop osteoarthritis of the knee than healthy-weight adults. The list of problems goes on and on but the message is clear – being overweight is bad news for our long-term health.

We need take control of our Sabbath eating habits if we want to stay healthy. Next time you feel the need to eat everything being served on Shabbat remember: “Calories really do count on Shabbat!”

Excerpt adapted from article originally published in the CJN (Canadian Jewish News, July 24, 2014).

The author is a naturopathic doctor with an integrative family medical practice in Wolfson Medical Center in Jerusalem.

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