This week the festival of Passover is being celebrated by Jews around the world. And though it is a major religious holiday, this post is about its health benefits.
The Seder is always the center of the holiday. Families get together from far and near. The word seder means order, and the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt is told. The youngest child asks four standard questions about the holiday and in the answering of it receive center stage attention. There is singing and relaxation and in most households, the focus will be on the meal.
And in the process of family gatherings and celebration lie one of the health benefits of Passover: socialization. In his book Blue Zones, Daniel Beuttner describes one of the most important commonalities of longevity: socialization. Clearly, that is much of what Passover is about. Families get together; friends and guests from out of town with no Seder nearby are often invited over. There is going to synagogue, coming home for meals (for some who want to eat specially-prepared meals), and getting together with friends. Passover is a very social as well as religious experience.
There is the cleaning of the home. The un-cluttering. The "spring cleaning." The removal of food that is "past dates" or does not "pass Passover inspection" for chametz (unleavened food made of wheat, barley, rye, oats, or spelt that has fermented or allowed to "rise"). This spring-cleaning is not only very therapeutic and de-stressing, it also rids of many foods that contain gluten and potential allergens.
And what about the food eaten? Here is my slight disclaimer. I know that not every Passover recipe is made with low fat, low salt, low calories and certainly not low volume. But there is an upside to what is eaten.
First, the red wine. The holiday requires drinking four glasses of it. Antioxidants called polyphenols are thought to protect the inside wall of blood vessels lining your heart, reduce "bad" cholesterol and lower the risk of blood clots. Another antioxidant, resveratrol, is thought to reduce inflammation and blood clotting, as well as lower the risk for diabetes. So for at least one night, it may be good to have those four glasses of red wine that come with the Seder.
Second is the fact that it teaches us to eat slowly. We are instructed that we can optionally eat reclining, no longer slaves and in a hurry. This allows us to chew our food better, which can aid digestion and gives the entire experience a feeling of relaxation that counters stress.
The Seder plate is also full of healthy choices. Karpas, the vegetable (typically parsley but also sometimes an onion) that is used to dip into salt water and eaten represents the tears shed by our suffering ancestors in slavery. Parsley is filled with vitamin K that aids blood clotting, and vitamin A, which helps vision and builds the immune system and vitamin C, which helps wounds heal. Folic acid is also in parsley, and that helps manufacture red blood cells.
Charoset, which signifies the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves to build brick buildings in Egypt, is made from a combination of nuts, apples, cinnamon and wine with some adding a bit of honey. There are lots of health benefits from the ingredients of charoset, but all have the common benefit of lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "lousy") cholesterol.
Maror, the bitter herb that reminds us of the bitterness of slavery, consists of grated horseradish known as the "Jewish Dristan" for its sinus-clearing capabilities. As an herbal medicine, it has been used for urinary tract infections, kidney stones, reducing retained fluid, an achy joint remedy and a treatment for gout.
Zeroa, the shank bone of a lamb, reminds us of the lamb sacrificed on the eve of the exodus from Egypt. It typically isn't eaten. Maybe the health benefit of this is to remind to limit our meat consumption and eat lots of vegetables and fruits every day.
A hard-boiled egg symbolizes new life and represents the holiday offering brought in the days of the Holy Temple in Israel before it was destroyed. Eggs are a great source of protein and numerous vitamins including vitamin A, folic acid and choline. They also contain two amino acids with antioxidant properties -- tryptophan and tyrosine.
Let's not forget the Gefilte Fish. This ground fish ball boiled with carrots and onions is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, beta-carotene and other B vitamins.
OK, eventually we are going to get to the brisket and the many delicious side dishes that constitute the remainder of the meal. Here, amount consumed as well as content will determine the health of the meal.
But one final health benefit of Passover I want to offer is rethinking what the holiday is all about: freedom. After 400 years of bondage, 600,000 Hebrews followed an unknown path to freedom. They received 10 commandments to live by and entered a new world of both uncertainty and untold opportunities.
I hope that for each of you, this Passover will be a happy and social time, one of relaxation and healthy meals, and one in which you reflect upon the true meaning of the holiday: freedom. All of us have a choice of whether or not to be slaves to bad habits and unhealthy choices, ongoing stress, unhealthy relationships and situations that keep us shackled, and negative baggage that binds our minds. I hope that this Passover will serve as an exodus for you to freedom from this form of bondage -- the ultimate health benefit of Passover.
For more by Mache Seibel, M.D., click here.
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