Healthier Eating for the High Holy Days
For Jews, the High Holy Days that begin soon are, as always, a time of celebration and reflection.
Also, lots of eating.
The more-than-24-hour fast of Yom Kippur (Sept. 16 this year) is followed by an evening “break-fast” that’s often a big meal. The season starts with New Year’s dinner after sunset on Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 6). It continues with gatherings of friends and family through the harvest festival known as Sukkot (Sept. 20-27) and Simchas Torah, which ends the annual cycle of Torah readings, on Sept. 29.
In keeping with tradition, the star attractions are things like brisket, chicken soup, bagels with lox and cream cheese, and honey-based desserts, often based on recipes handed down for generations.
These beloved dishes are full of flavor – but also, unfortunately, lots of fat, sugar and especially salt (sodium).
“On the holidays in particular, there are a lot of rich, very high-salt marinades and dishes,” says Joshua Copeland, MD, a cardiologist at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. “I just think of how my grandmother, who’s no longer alive, would make her briskets, and I think the main ingredient was soy sauce, which is so high in sodium.”
A Healthier Celebration
“For those that have heart disease,” he says, “this is really about finding alternatives or ways to modify the menu so they still get to enjoy the cultural aspects of being Jewish, a lot of which takes place around meals and food, but not put their health at risk.”
Fortunately, there are ways to adapt traditional recipes and menus to retain flavor but reduce sodium levels, says Megan Carrier, MS, RD, LDN, an Einstein Philadelphia dietician. (See “Healthier Holiday Brisket,” at right.) She suggests reading labels, using products labeled “lower sodium” or “no salt added,” and reducing amounts of high-sodium condiments.
Dr. Copeland and Carrier are among dozens of health care providers affiliated with Einstein Healthcare Network’s Jewish Health Resource Center. The center focuses on providing health care in a way that honors Jewish traditions.
Almost half of U.S. adults have high blood pressure (hypertension), which is measured as 130 over 80 millimeters of mercury or above. Research shows that it occurs more often in people who consume higher amounts of sodium.
U.S. guidelines recommend no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily (about one teaspoon) to help prevent high blood pressure and heart disease. For those who already have heart disease, the recommended daily amount is no more than 1,500 mg. Kosher salt contains the same amount of sodium as other table salt, about 40%.
But many holiday recipes can send your sodium intake soaring. About 2 ½ tablespoons of soy sauce contain nearly enough sodium for a whole day, even for those without heart disease. Chicken and beef broth or bouillon add about 600 to 800 mg per cup or cube. And a mere ounce of lox contains 500 to 600 mg of sodium.
For people with the chronic condition known as heart failure, days of high-sodium meals could be not only unhealthy in the long run but pose an immediate danger.
Dr. Copeland says he frequently treats heart failure patients who show up at the hospital with shortness of breath, fluid buildup in the lungs and swelling in their legs. “When I talk to patients, many of them admit to recently indulging in excessively salty foods.”
If you’re cooking holiday meals, Carrier recommends taking these steps to cut down on the amount of sodium you’re serving your guests.
- Be aware of which foods (such as lox), condiments (such as soy sauce and barbecue sauce) and other ingredients (such as onion soup mix) are usually high in sodium.
- Read labels of any ingredients or prepared foods you’re using.
- Aim for no more than 250 mg of sodium per serving.
Reduce Salty Ingredients
- Instead of using high-sodium canned broth or bouillon, substitute low- or no-sodium versions.
- Make your own chicken or beef broth using meaty bones you have saved in the freezer.
- Add salt last after tasting your broth or soup.
- If your recipe includes soy sauce, reduce the amount and use a lower-sodium version.
- If your recipe includes other condiments such as barbecue sauce, write down the ingredients (typically, tomato sauce, onions, spices and garlic powder) and make your own, using a small amount of salt. If your recipe uses onion soup mix, make your own version with onions or onion powder and a small amount of salt.
Load Up on Non-Salty Foods
- Season your soups and marinades with onions, garlic, pepper, paprika and herbs.
- Include lots of flavorful vegetables such as carrots and celery.
- Again, add salt last.
Reduce Salt in Prepared Foods
- Thinly slice lox and soak in water in the refrigerator for at least two hours before serving. ‘
- Cut lox into slivers so people can take smaller amounts.
- Serve bagels sliced in half or even thinner portions.
- Serve with vegetables such as red onion, lettuce and tomato.
- For high-sodium foods that come from a jar or can, such as gefilte fish, remove up to 70% of sodium by rinsing before serving.
Look Out for Sugar, Too
- If your marinade includes brown or white sugar, sharply reduce the amount.
- If your marinade includes cola, substitute seltzer or other carbonated water, plus a small amount of honey – a traditional holiday ingredient.
- Experiment with using less sugar or honey in desserts, or focus on a seasonal favorite such as apple slices dipped in just a bit of honey.
Remember that weight control is also essential for reducing your risk of heart disease. So avoid overindulging during the holidays by controlling portions, and take a walk after dinner.
Finally, Dr. Copeland offers some general advice: if you don’t know what your blood pressure is, go to your doctor and find out. Even if your blood pressure isn’t quite high enough to exceed the threshold for hypertension, making changes like salt reduction can help prevent future problems.
“If you reduce the salt,” he says, “you’re going to be preventing a lot of people from developing high blood pressure and heart disease.”