We are now focusing on the approaching holidays.  This is a time for spiritual preparation. It is also a time when practical preparation for the upcoming 23 days, Rosh Hashanah through, Simchat Torah, can go a long way toward preserving our health. With a little bit of planning, this period in our calendar can be as meaningful as it is meant to be, and our physical pleasures can indeed be used to enhance our spirituality. 

There are essentially three areas where we to get into trouble. One - the amounts of food we consume sitting at our tables during our festive meals. Two - the types of food we eat, and three - the general lack of activity and exercise during the holidays.  Of these, the most difficult to tackle tend to be the quantity of food we end up eating for more than three weeks.   As we spend a lot of time around the table and in the Succah, this is where much of the damage occurs.  So let’s take a look at portion control, how important is it, and how can we accomplish it?

The problem of larger than normal portions

We live in the generation of plenty. Many people can afford to buy more food than their ancestors ever could.  Look at the size of our plates and the number of courses of our Shabbat and holiday meals! Couple this with the great availability of prepared foods, and the sizes they come in, and our portions have probably increased by close to a third over the last 25-30 years. 

Studies show that increases in portion sizes over time has led to a significant increase in the number of overweight and obese individuals. It’s not just that we eat more than we need at any given meal, but we are overeating over long periods of time.  Unfortunately, much of the foods we overeat during the holidays are calorie dense, like sweet kugels, kneidlach, honey cakes, and other desserts. Even vegetables dishes, as healthy as they can be, if we prepare them with too much oil and sugar, it adds up to too many calories.

Evidence linking over-consumption of food to unhealthy weight gain led the World Health Organization in 2014 to suggest that limiting portion sizes could help reduce the risk of unhealthy weight gain.   We live in an environment that promotes large portion sizes, it is therefore essential that we understand the fundamentals of portion control.  A review published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society by researchers in the United Kingdom and the United States, looked at the potential causes and influences leading to the portion size effect and the long-term effects of larger portion sizes.

It adds up

It doesn’t take major overeating to have a negative effect.  If someone eats about 400 calories more a day than they need, and they do this daily, they will be gaining a kilo (2.2 pounds) every 18 days!  Portion size affects energy balance, so an increase in portion size results in weight gain over time if no other measures are taken to balance out the increased energy intake.  With high-calorie foods being more attractive in terms of taste and pleasure, compared to low-energy-density foods such as fruit, vegetables and lean protein, children are especially susceptible to consuming larger than normal portions.   Therefore, parents should be vigilant and watch over portion sizes for high-energy-density foods as a strategy to promote healthier eating habits. This shows clearly the relationship between portion size, energy density, liking particular foods and individual eating traits.

The single best way to reduce total calories is to concentrate on eating nutrient and fiber dense foods, which are by nature calorie poor.  If the emphasis is on fruits, vegetables, whole intact grains, and legumes, we will be full and not gain appreciable weight.  Adding in some nuts and seeds in small amounts (they are calorie dense but very healthy) will give you a satisfying and perfectly healthy diet.  Think of your meat, chicken and fish as a small side dish at best.

Eat more to lose weight?

Does it make sense for me to suggest you eat more when we’ve acknowledged that portion sizes are too big?  Well, yes and no.  The “yes” is that if you eat planned and controlled snacks in between your meals, you will be less likely to overeat at the meals.  It will reduce your hunger and regulate your release of the hormone insulin.  On the other hand, unhealthy and uncontrolled snacking can cause weight gain. It’s up to us to make sure our snacks and the snacks we give our children are healthy and portion controlled. 

Make a plan

The single most important thing you can do to get through these 23 days with your weight and health intact is to plan! Just as you are planning your menus and guest lists in advance, you can also plan your meals so that you are satiated without being over full. Plan your daily menus, shopping and snacks so that you have plenty of healthy options and you don’t skip meals.  Remember, half of your plate should be vegetables, both raw and cooked.  Your proteins, grains, and fats can make up the other half of your place.  Drink lots of water so you are hydrated and feel full. 

Stay Active

You don’t have to be engaged in formal exercise all the time to get benefits.  Make an effort to stay active. May I suggest:

  • Schedule a daily, 30-minute brisk walk.  Divide your walk into 2 sessions if needed. 
  • Try to walk after your meals even for 5 minutes. 
  • Walk places instead of using the car or bus.
  • Use stairs instead of elevators. 

All of this activity together adds up in NEAT (Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis).  It burns calories and it keeps your metabolism elevated much of the time. 

The Jewish holidays are a time to be especially joyful and happy and to celebrate together with our families.  We don’t need to create more stress in our lives than we already have.  So, instead of saying “After the holidays,” resolve to get started with good and healthful habits right now.  Decide now to add a positive change in your exercise and eating habits!  Watch your portion sizes, choose nutritious foods, and find ways to stay active. There will be days when you just can’t exercise, but staying as active as possible has a lot of value, too.  This coming year, make healthy decisions that will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.” 

Alan Freishtat is a HEALTH and WELLNESS COACH and PERSONAL TRAINER with 23 years of professional experience. He is a graduate of the eCornell University Certificate course on Plant Based Nutrition for preventing and reversing illness. Alan is director of The Wellness Clinic.  He can be reached at 02-651-8502 or 050-555-7175, or by email at alan@alanfitness.com www.alanfitness.com US Line: 516-568-5027