For a millennia-old religious celebration that has little to do with physical wellbeing, the Passover holiday offers unexpected health-related opportunities.
Thanks to its eight-day ritual 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 eschewed during 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.
Ironically, for gluten-free aficionados, the prohibition of many of these high-gluten foods during Passover also extends to typical substitutes for gluten like corn, rice and most other grains. In other words, the Passover holiday requires significant changes for everyone, which is appropriate given that the dietary restriction was created to help Jews remember and even reenact their distant ancestors’ ordeal.
The holiday’s mostly 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 without realizing it. Improvements in digestion, energy level or 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 some people experience what he describes as “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.”
“There isn’t a lot of agreement across disciplines about how to diagnose this 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 diet — but without having celiac disease or showing 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 usually 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 as an unintended result of reducing their gluten intake.
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 fairly high in gluten. Yes, matzah — the square sheet of dry and oppressively bland cracker-like matter that Jews are commanded to eat during the holiday — 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. Or, as Swaminath notes, you may also consider choosing one of the “non-wheat containing matzahs” on the market, including oat and spelt-based matzahs.
Regardless, Passover still doesn’t need to be a gluten-intensive holiday, even for observers who can’t get their hands on the non-wheat stuff. 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, the ritual meals held on the first two nights of the holiday, satisfies the holiday’s matzah-eating requirement. 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.
Yet 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.
“A tiny exposure to gluten to meet religious observance and obligation may be reasonable or necessary,” Swaminath says.
Armin Rosen is a New York-based writer and reporter.