Chag Pesach sameach, everybody. This past Friday marked the beginning of Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the biblical exodus from Egypt. Those who celebrate host and attend two seders (a traditional meal with extended readings, prayers and rituals) on the first two nights, and abstain from eating leavened bread and grain-based products for the entire week. (Many also watch Prince of Egypt or The Ten Commandments.)
As the story goes, when the then-enslaved Jewish people, led by Moses, fled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, they didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise. Now, for the span of the seven-or-eight day holiday, eating leavened bread and any amount of wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt is forbidden. That means observants have to get very creative eating and cooking with matzo, a crisp unleavened bread made from water and flour.
But eating only matzo for a week straight can come with some gastrointestinal consequences: namely, constipation. This is a completely normal side effect of eating a large quantity of a very refined white flour products with practically no fiber in it, explains Danielle Zolotnitsky, RD, a dietitian in Philadelphia who works with patients with digestive diseases. Although it can be uncomfortable, it’s not the end of the world, and there are ways to relieve the symptoms while also observing the customs of the holiday.
For starters, remember that eating fiber helps keep your gastrointestinal system in tip-top shape, Zolotnitsky says. "When we are not being Kosher for Passover, and choosing beautiful, brown, whole wheat bread, you are eating a lovely combo of soluble and insoluble fiber," she says. Soluble fiber keeps water in your stool, which makes it large and soft, and allows it to move smoothly to your digestive tract, she says. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, helps bulk up your stool so it’s soft, and ensures it moves quickly through your gastrointestinal tract, she says.
Without this combination of fiber, your stool has less water in it, and moves slower through the tract, Zolotnitsky says. "Think of food without fiber as a speed bump — or worse, a road block — on your journey to a full good poop," she says. So, as you digest this fiber-less treat, it makes its way into the stomach and intestines, slowly creating hard, dry, slow stool. It's reasonable for that to lead to constipation and discomfort, especially if you’re eating large quantities of matzo each day, Zolotnitsky explains.
The best thing you can do to counteract this matzo-induced constipation is to eat lots of vegetables and fruits, she suggests. You might also consider eating legumes or beans, she says. (Although these foods have historically been off-limits during Passover, the Rabbinical Assembly recently decided that corn, beans, and rice are okay. But what you are and aren’t comfortable eating during this time is a personal decision.) Drinking plenty of water can also help your bowels along, she suggests. Staying active and reducing stress may also relieve constipation, according to the Mayo Clinic.
So, if you find yourself blocked up during Passover, perhaps a rousing game of finding the afikomen or chugging a few more glasses of water might be your best options. If nothing else, you can spend this time planning the big fibrous meal that you'll eat at the end of the holiday.