The Health Benefits of a Passover Diet
JNS.org – For a millennia-old religious celebration that has little to do with physical health, the Passover holiday offers some unexpected benefits.
Thanks to its eight-day ban on eating nearly any food that’s wheat- or grain-based, the annual Jewish commemoration of the Biblical exodus from Egypt imposes a mostly gluten-free diet on the people who celebrate it.
Many of the foods banned on Passover are particularly high in gluten, notes Dr. Arun Swaminath, director of the inflammatory bowel disease program at Northwell Health’s Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
“Breads, pasta, pizza, bulgur, couscous and beer are all big sources of gluten-containing foods,” Swaminath says.
The holiday’s gluten-free diet won’t have many health consequences for most Jews observing Passover — but it could have some real benefits for some of them. As Swaminath explains, eight days is just long enough for a gluten-free diet to result in noticeable health gains for people who may have celiac disease, but don’t realize it. Improvements in digestion, energy levels or a sense of mental clarity during a weeklong bread, pasta and beer-free holiday could indicate that someone has an undiagnosed celiac condition.
“If you suddenly feel better during Passover, you should you talk to your gastroenterologist over why that might be,” Swaminath recommends.
Non-celiacs could potentially see improvements during the holiday, too. Although it’s still a matter of scientific controversy, Swaminath says it’s possible that some people experience what he describes as “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.”
“There isn’t a lot of agreement across disciplines about how to diagnose [gluten sensitivity] or who even qualifies,” he explains. Proof for the phenomenon is entirely anecdotal. Nevertheless, significant numbers of patients have described experiencing improvements in health after cutting gluten out of their diets — even if they don’t have celiac disease or their blood tests don’t show any clinically provable sensitivity to gluten.
Swaminath says that one possible explanation for non-celiacs benefiting from a gluten-free diet is that high-gluten foods also have an especially large amount of “poorly absorbed sugars” that introduce bacteria to the intestinal tract, causing indigestion and bloating. Even if people on a gluten-free diet don’t have a gluten sensitivity, they’re still eating fewer of these non-absorbent sugars.
But before you rejoice in the potential health benefits of a mostly gluten-free holiday, you should note that there is one important food consumed on Passover that is still very high in gluten.
Yes, matzah — the square sheet of dry and oppressively bland cracker-like — has plenty of gluten. So while Passover is an ideal chance to experience the potential benefits of a low-gluten diet, you will need to moderate your matzah intake in order to do so. Or, as Swaminath notes, you may also consider choosing one of the gluten-free matzahs now on the market.
And while Jews are commanded to eat matzah on Passover, they aren’t required to eat that much of it. A small nibble during the seders satisfies the holiday’s matzah-eating requirement. And given matzah’s legendary taste profile, many Jews would be happy to avoid eating more of it than they absolutely need to, even if they’re not going gluten-free.
And in the end, a little of the “bread of affliction” won’t hurt most non-celiacs, even those who want to experience the effects of a gluten-free diet.
Armin Rosen is a New York-based writer and reporter.