The average Jewish diet doesn’t have to be bad for you, according to a new book. Alex Galbinski chats to the author
With chopped liver, smoked salmon and cholent often on the menu, keeping your waistline slim and maintaining the laws of kosher at the same time can be something of a challenge.
But Beth Warren (pictured), a US-registered dietician and certified nutritionist, thinks she may have the answer with her newly-published book, Living A Real Life With Real Food, subtitled How to Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Stay Energised – the Kosher Way.
Part-recipe collection and part-lifestyle guide, the book gives readers advice, meal plans and instructions for creating 50 dishes, including quinoa salad, mujedre (rice and lentils), Moroccan fish and salmon za’atar skewers.
Waren’s philosophy on nutrition revolves around encouraging people to eat ‘real’ or unprocessed foods as much as possible and helps them decipher the often-complicated nutritional facts relating to different foods.
“Quality foods are metabolised and digested differently from highly-processed ones,” she explains. “If we shift our diet to eat more real food, we will inherently consume a more anti- inflammatory diet.
Eating a diet that fights inflammation not only helps in weight loss, but also decreases the risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It is also the major benefit of following a Mediterranean diet.”
While she doesn’t want to demonise any particular food or food group, Warren stresses she focuses on quality ingredients: good, healthy fats and no added sugars. She also draws on her heritage to emphasise healthy living.
“I used my Jewish history to show how the kosher diet originally had these anti- inflammatory qualities, because dating all the way back to the Israelites’ days travelling in the desert, for example, we ate our God-given manna fresh daily.
“In more modern times, we lived a Mediterranean-diet way of life. My book takes us back to those times to re-inspire us to go back to our real-food roots.” So, for example, instead of opting for highly-processed packaged foods, she would like to see us eating grass-fed beef and chicken, fermented dairy, whole grains, plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.
“The issue is that we are quick to pick up and consume highly-processed packaged foods,” she explains. “We are more inclined to grab something on a store shelf than try to create it in our own kitchens. We even use packaged products when we do try to cook homemade, as opposed to store-bought meals.”
As well as providing information on food, Warren suggests ways to eat out healthily in social settings, such as weekly Shabbat meals, where habits are not only about the food. She also gives a guide on how to navigate the supermarket to make ‘real-food’ choices in a kosher way, as well as meal plans comprising Jewish recipes with a healthier twist.
“In my book, I take the reader through the food groups to sift through the current controversies and show if and how they have been in our diets since the beginning of creation, with interesting anecdotes from the biblical and Talmudic days,” she adds. Warren says she was always interested in living a healthy lifestyle, but her focus was primarily on physical activity.
“It wasn’t until college and I began reading diet books and took an elective in nutrition that I became interested in it as a science,” she says. As she describes in her book, at the age of 15, she used to accompany her father to the gym twice a week and would reward herself afterwards with a Coca-Cola Slurpee drink.
It was an innocent comment by her father to the effect that “you know, we just put all that hard work into burning calories” that set the foundations for exercise and health becoming such a large part of her life.
“Scenarios presented themselves throughout my childhood and adult years, such as witnessing people having unhealthy relationships with foods and choosing not to eat or eat restrictively in order to try to lose weight,” she says.
“The focus was always on being skinny, not on being healthy. I felt there was always something missing from all this, and that was real nutrition and lifestyle changes.” Of food traditionally eaten by Jews, some of which is laden with unhealthy fats, she says: “We should all embrace our Jewish history, including our ethnic cuisine.
“We have to be careful not to confuse our Jewish customs with current ones, as opposed to how they originally were back in the ‘old country’.
“Our Jewish diets, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi, have real-food foundations. The diets involved cooking meals fresh and the real foods were enjoyed among whole families.
“Pickling was enjoyed by both communities and has inherent probiotic health benefits. We have to be careful to balance the Jewish recipes and not fall into the ‘potatoes, kugel and gefilte’ meal plan. Instead we should seek the balance among the unique vegetable dishes and Mediterranean style of cooking.”
Warren’s paternal great-grandparents came from Syria, while her maternal grandparents hailed from Eastern Europe, so she grew up eating and being familiar with all types of food, all of which was freshly made.
The list incorporated the range from coleslaw, potato salad and matzo ball soup to lahmagene, kibbeh, yebrah and other Syrian dishes – but Warren says her family were like many others, with ‘tons’ of junk food options, particularly chocolate, and she inherited a sweet tooth from her father.
In the book, she is most proud of her salad and fish recipes, saying: “The goal of my recipes was to show how cooking real food can be simple and the matching meal plans show it can fit into your real life.”
• Living A Real Life With Real Food: How to Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Stay Energised – the Kosher Way by Beth Warren is published by Skyhorse, priced at £14.72. Available now.