by Leah Koenig
Dieting — the practice of controlling one’s food and drink intake with the hopes of losing weight — is a fascinating and frustrating phenomenon.
With near-religious fervor, American dieters purchase protein shakes, juicers, or a slew of expensive packaged meals from dieting services — and, more often than not, they end up disappointed by the results. Unfortunately, the extra restrictions of a kosher lifestyle can make dieting even more complicated.
Kosher + Dieting = Hard to Find Food
In “on-the-go” situations it can be especially difficult to make choices that are compatible with both kashrut and a particular diet’s specifications. For example, when lunchtime rolls around at the office, many dieters rely on nearby restaurants for a quick salad, grilled chicken sandwich, or other fresh, nutritious meal. But unless the restaurant is certified kosher, observant dieters cannot partake in that convenience.
At home, many kosher keepers — along with many other Americans — rely on pre-packaged and frozen foods. The booming kosher industry has done its best to entice Jewish consumers into the convenience product fold — according to the Star-K website, the kosher market is growing at an annual rate of 15%, with 3,000 new products being introduced each year. The vast majority of these products are processed, often filled with sodium, fat, and chemicals which, when eaten regularly, do nothing to help a dieter’s cause.
Traditional Jewish foods such as blintzes and heavy kugels also pose a challenge. These dishes come from Eastern European “poverty cuisine,” created at a time when eating enough calories was a challenge in itself, and they similarly interfere with weight-loss goals.
Diet Laws and Jewish Laws
But kosher-keeping dieters need not lose heart.
Chana Rubin, a registered dietician and author of Food for the Soul: Traditional Jewish Wisdom for Healthy Eating, suggests that a healthy lifestyle — kosher or otherwise — depends on cultivating eating habits focused on whole foods: lentils and beans, vegetables and fruit, lean meats, whole grains, fresh herbs, and — yes — the occasional homemade sweet treat (ideally one made without chemical-laden pareve whipped topping!). These foods nourish the body and provide essential vitamins and minerals without the added salt, fat, and sugar loaded into packaged and processed foods. Rubin’s approach to healthy living is generally supported by nutrition and dietetics organizations, but has been slow to catch on in the kosher community.
Rubin roots much of her nutritious eating philosophy in the words of the 12th century Jewish sage and physician, Maimonides, who wrote extensively on eating and exercise. For example, he wrote, “One should not eat until one’s stomach is [very] full, but one should [only] eat until one’s stomach is three-quarters full,” (Deot 4:1) and “One should take care to eat and drink only in order to be healthy in body and limb” (Deot 3:2).
Inspired by this wisdom, Rubin argues that one of the real secrets to successful kosher dieting is learning to cook. “In my opinion, you have to start back in the kitchen,” she said. “Nothing that you buy is ever going to be as healthy as what you can make at home.” In addition to being nutritionally better, cooking balanced meals is also significantly less expensive than relying on kosher diet delivery services. Like regular diet services, kosher services charge exorbitant prices to deliver frozen or vacuum packed meals that are low in calories — and usually low in flavor.
However, armed with a few basic kitchen skills, preparing wholesome meals at home can take less time than watching an episode of The Office, and will almost always taste better than a delivered kosher frozen burrito.
Afraid of spending hours to prepare kosher, healthy dishes? The Jew & The Carrot blog has plenty of quick, diet-friendly recipes, such as Cardamom-Scented Oatmeal for breakfast (10 minutes), Roasted Potato Salad — just add a few cubes of feta cheese to make this into lunch (25 minutes), and Noodles and Tofu with Sesame Peanut Sauce for dinner (30 minutes). For some really easy options, try chopping a big vegetable salad and adding beans to make a satisfying lunch, or air-popping your own popcorn for a crunchy snack.
While you’re in the kitchen, you can “lighten up” some of your favorite traditional Jewish recipes by substituting hydrogenated oils, butter, and cream with healthier ingredients like canola oil, applesauce, almond milk, and low-fat yogurt. For healthier versions of some Jewish classics, try MyJewishLearning’s recipes for Tzimmes, Vegetarian Chicken Soup, Sweet Potato Kugel, and Apple-Pear-Cranberry Kugel. Rubin’s website, Healthy Jewish Eating, also offers many additional tips and recipe modifications for traditional cooking.
Of course, there are some convenience products on the shelves that kosher dieters can turn to for quick and tasty nutrition. Satisfying Larabars and Pirates Booty from Roberts American Gourmet make tasty snacks. Westbrae produces high-quality organic beans, and Pacific Natural offers delicious soups — both turn into meals in minutes. Carefully inspect labels at your local natural food store; you might be surprised to discover other healthy products that have kosher certification.
Finally, keep in mind that kosher keepers trying to lose weight do have some advantages. At the basis of kashrut lies the question: “Is this food fit for consumption?” If applied not only to the ritual aspects of food, but also to the health aspects, kashrut actually serves as a brilliant guide to mindful eating. With a little forethought and culinary know-how, kosher Jews can enjoy healthy and delicious meals at home and away.
Your Essential “Good Eating” Library
In addition to providing delicious recipes, the following cookbooks share all the simple techniques and encouragement you need to help you eat well and feel well. Buy one (or all) of them, read them like inspirational literature, and then get cooking!
Leah Koenig is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Gastronomica, Jewish Living, Lilith, Culinate, Beliefnet and other publications.