The 23 Day Challenge

We are now focusing on the approaching Rosh HaShanah.  As much as this is a time for spiritual preparation, it is also a time when practical preparation can go a long way toward preserving our health. This 23-day holiday time period also includes Yom Kippur, Succot, Chol HaMoed and Simchat Torah. It’s a time of year that, unfortunately, can have a negative effect on our health if we allow it to.  However, with a little bit of planning and a lot of portion control, this period in our calendar can be as meaningful as it is meant to be. Our Gashmiut (physical pleasures), can indeed be used to enhance our Ruchniut (spirituality).

There are essentially three areas where we all tend to get into trouble:
  1. The amounts of food we consume sitting at our tables for our festive meals
  2. The types of foods we eat
  3. The general lack of activity and exercise

Of these, the most difficult to tackle tend to be the amounts of food we end up eating over the month of Tishrei.  We spend a lot of time around the table and in the Succah, and this is where much of the damage occurs.  How important is portion control? How can we accomplish it?

Exploring the problem of larger than normal portions

Portion size effect

We live in the generation of plenty. 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.  Over the decades, you can easily see how much more we are consuming on Shabbatot and Chagim.  Just look at the sizes of our plates and the number of courses involved in every meal!  Studies show that increases in portion sizes has led to a significant increase in the number of overweight and obese individuals. This is known as the portion size effect. It’s not just that we eat more than necessary at any given meal, but we do so over long periods of time.

Unfortunately, much of the foods we overeat during the chagim are calorie dense but nutritionally poor, like sweet kugels, kneidlach, honey cake, and the many other desserts we consume. Even when eating the Simanin at the beginning of our first Rosh Hashanah meal, as healthy as those foods are, if we eat too much, it adds up.

Extra food, extra weight

Studies have provided evidence linking over-consumption of food to unhealthy weight gain.  This led to the World Health Organization’s suggestion, in 2014, 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 recent 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 long-term effects of larger portion sizes. The researchers point out that it doesn’t take major overeating to have a negative effect.  If someone eats about 400 calories more a day than he needs, and he does this daily, he will be gaining a kilo (2.2 pounds) every 18 days!  Basically, portion size affects energy balance. 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-dense foods as a strategy to promote healthier eating habits.

Portions keep getting bigger

Compared to the 1950s, the portion sizes have significantly increased. The US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute tracked American consumer trend changes. For example, a typical burger size has increased from 333 kcal to 590 kcal and chips (French fries) from 210 kcal to 610 kcal. The issue is that as the trends have changed, the general population has become familiar with these larger portion sizes as normal or typical. Some also argue that this exposure to larger portion sizes leads to people expecting larger portion sizes. (Keep in mind that these increases come together with a less and less active society.)

Restaurants and fast food establishments all compete with each other based on the amount of food they are giving.  So if you are of the mindset that you MUST get your money’s worth and finish all that is served to you, then you will certainly put on weight when eating out or eating take out food.

Getting practical before Rosh HaShanah

Eat more snacks

Does it make sense for me to suggest that you eat more snacks in a discussion about portion sizes being 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.  So it’s up to us to make sure our snacks and the snacks we give our children are 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 the Chagim and your menus and guest lists in advance, you can also plan your meals so that you are not left overly hungry. Plan you daily menus, shopping and snacks so that you have plenty of healthy options and you don’t skip meals.  Your portion sizes can also be worked on ahead of time.  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.

The Chagim 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.  Instead of saying “After the holidays,” resolve to get started with good and healthful habits right now!  Watch your portion sizes and choose nutritious foods. There will be days when you just can’t exercise, but staying as active as possible has a lot of value, too.  Decide now to do something to better your eating and add a positive change in your exercise habits.  This coming year, make healthy decisions that will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”


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