Is the Jewish diet healthy? This is a tough one to answer, as our diet is a synthesis of diverse cuisines from all over the world. However, what is thought of as the Jewish diet in this country is based largely on Eastern European Ashkenazi food with a few Sephardi additions.
The shtetl diet was based on freshwater fish, potatoes, root vegetables, dumplings and hearty meat dishes. Vegetables were pickled in salt and fermented and meats and fish preserved by smoking and salting to last the winter. Sephardi cuisine used olive oil, saltwater fish, vegetables from a warm climate (such as aubergines and tomatoes), onions and spices.
Refugees from Eastern Europe brought foods typically thought of as Jewish: chicken soup and kneidlach, rye bread, bagels, latkes, chopped liver and noodles. Sephardi dishes like fried fish were brought from Portugal by a previous wave of immigrants.
Some aspects of the kosher diet promote healthy eating. Kashrut forbids the combination of meat and dairy products, thereby reducing the dietary intake of these, both of which are high in saturated fat and contribute to dietary cholesterol. Kashrut permits eating pareve (neutral) grains, vegetables and fruit (which contain fibre and complex carbohydrates) at any meal with either meat or dairy foods, thereby providing a balanced diet.
The healthy-eating guidelines advise us to eat regular meals. Jews traditionally regard meals as tremendously important: food bonds the family together and connects the generations, acting as a link with the past.
However, Jewish food is widely considered to have a high fat content. Historically, poverty and hardship would have led to Jews eating high-fat foods such as schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) and grebenes (crisp bits of fat left over after rendering). Deli food — salt beef, pastrami, salamis, chopped liver, sausages, blintzes, cheesecake — are also high-fat options. Today, however, few of us are so hungry that a large intake of fat is needed for survival.
We also need to reduce our salt intake. Unfortunately, salt plays a major role in the traditional Jewish diet as a seasoning, a preservative, in rituals and koshering practices. Popular high-salt foods include smoked and cured fish such as salmon, salt herring and pickled herring, processed meats and pickled vegetables such as cucumbers. In addition, ready-prepared kosher foods and food products contain large amounts of salt. With today’s sophisticated refrigeration, however, the need to eat foods preserved with salt diminishes.
We are advised to eat fewer sugary foods. Many traditional foods that are eaten at holidays and festivals throughout the year are sweet: doughnuts at Chanukah, poppyseed-filled cakes at Purim, cheese cakes at Shavuot.
However , on the plus side, Jews score highly on fish intake (we are advised to eat more fish, particularly of the oily variety), since oil-rich herring and salmon are both mainstays of the diet.
We should include starchy carbohydrate foods at all meals, especially those high in fibre. In this area, we also start with an advantage. Bread is important to Jews: Challah, rye bread, pumpernickel and bagels are but a few popular varieties.
We should eat plenty of fruit and vegetables — Sephardic cooking in particular uses a wide variety of fruits. Good health requires that we keep to a healthy body weight, which can be achieved by choosing nutritious, low-fat and low-sugar foods and reducing portion sizes. Maimonides wrote 800 years ago that one should eat only until one’s stomach is three-quarters full.
We can now purchase a good variety of lower-fat, lower-sugar products as well as tofu-based versions of dairy dishes, frozen vegetarian meals, salt-free seasonings and soya products.
We should continue to enjoy our rich culinary heritage, but need to make dietary changes — namely, keeping sugar intake low, eating less fat and salt, more fruit and vegetables and smaller helpings. We must remember that taking risks with our health is in conflict with our respect for life.