The medieval scholar, Maimonides, was ahead of his time on healthy eating. His advice was to change your habits little by little not all at once, avoid red meat and stop eating when you are three-quarters full.
This is, broadly, very similar to the advice given by modern-day specialists for National Obesity Awareness Week, which starts on January 8. And it’s particularly important for Jews, says weight management consultant, Tracey Bennett, who is touring synagogues speaking on how to change your habits to improve your health.
“Food is of such pivotal importance to Jewish culture,” she says. “We feast for every festival and even a Friday night meal can be huge. By the time you’ve eaten crisps and nuts, two slices of challah with chopped liver, chicken soup and matzah balls, roast chicken, potatoes and vegetables and a dessert, you could have consumed more than 1800 calories in one meal. The average woman only needs about 2000 calories a day.”
She does not, however, advocate counting calories. “Dieting is not the answer. Only one percent of people manage to lose weight and keep it off. The average woman spends 19 years of her life on a diet, and 23 years putting it back on again.”
Being overweight brings a raft of potential illnesses, she explains: “The health consequences of being obese are scary. Body Mass Index is not the best indicator. The fat around your tummy is the important part to measure — a waist measurement of more than 88cm for a woman and 102cm for a man, carries a higher risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.”
Food writer Judi Rose and her cousin, Dr Jackie Lewis, a GP with a special interest in healthy eating for disease prevention, also suggest changing habits rather than going on a diet. “As Jews, we love our food,” says Judi, but let’s face it, however healthy it may be, if it isn’t delicious and easy to cook, you’re not going to enjoy it or make it again. Jackie and I believe in ‘moderation not deprivation’, and in healthy recipes that don’t compromise on taste.”
Bennett was concerned to find that Ashkenazi Jews are predisposed to diabetes and heart disease. “Israel has the third highest mortality rate from diabetes in the world and we are also more likely to get breast and bowel cancer too.”
She says we should be eating resistant starches: “These are starches that your body cannot digest. They keep you feeling fuller longer. If you reheat pasta and rice, the amount of resistant starch in them doubles, halving the calorie content in those foods. You could save 100 calories and lose ten pounds of weight over a year.”
Oats should be eaten raw, not cooked.“Oats contain plenty of resistant starch, but if you cook them, this disappears. Instead of making porridge, soak the oats overnight. If you like them hot you can pour boiling water over them before serving.”
Chia seeds are a superfood worth trying, as they are packed with nutrients and swell up in your stomach, keeping you full. “Add them to anything you like such as soups or with cereal, but make sure you drink plenty of water, and start with not more than 35g per day.”
Apple cider vinegar reduces cholesterol. “A client of mine changed nothing other than taking apple cider vinegar, and in 10 days reduced his cholesterol by nine percent!”
And last, eat blackberries, blueberries and red cabbage, which burn fat and replenish gut bacteria. Onions, black tea and pears can also help.
Tracey Bennett is speaking at Radlett Reform Synagogue on January 31