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Religious Orthodoxy Does Not Protect Against Disordered Eating

One of the most persistent and pervasive beliefs amongst experts in eating disorders is that much of this problem in “western” society is promoted by the focus on thinness in popular media and weight-obsessed societal norms.

It is therefore interesting, when researchers find that actual data to support this commonly held notion may not be all that clear or straightforward.

In a paper just published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, Marjori Feinson and Adi Meier from the Falk Institute for Behavioural Studies in Jerusalem, Israel, examined the hypothesis that eating disorders are directly promoted by exposure to popular media or modern societal obsession with thinness.

The researchers conducted extensive interviews to assess the frequency of symptoms of disordered eating in a community sample of over 800 adult secular, traditional, orthodox, and ultra-orthodox Jewish women in Israel.

The over 200 ultra-orthodox Jewish women included in this sample belonged to the Haredi, which the authors describe as:

“…a community that strictly adheres to religious rituals and protects its traditions and values from outside influence by separating itself from the rest of society and refuse to make any compromises with contemporary secular culture. They not only maintain separate, political, educational and legal institutions from the rest of Israeli society, and differ in dress, customs, and daily practices from the general public but Haredim normally live with their parents until marriage, tend to marry earlier and raise much larger families. Nearly all forms of modern communication are denounced by rabbinical authorities and the banning of televisions represents “a prime symbol of the community’s ability to maintain its identity and to protect itself from the sinful secular world.”

As the authors point out:

“Although food is central to all Jewish cultural, ethnic and religious traditions, it is paramount in the lives of Haredi women, not only because of religious ritual practices, but also because of extremely large families to feed.”

The women were similar in average age (~40 yr) and had similar rates of obesity (~20%) and overweight (~30%). Haredi women were far more likely to be married (~90%) whereas the secular women were least likely (~45%).

Rates of self criticism were lowest amongst Haredi women (10%) and increased in orthodox (14%), traditional (17%), and secular (20%) women.

Mental health status rated as fair or poor was also least common amongst the Haredi women (18%) and was higher in orthodox (24%), traditional (40%), and secular 37%) women.

Surprisingly, however, considerable and serious eating disordered behaviours were reported at about 45% across all groups. In fact, the prevalence of serious disorder was reported at 14.6% in the Haredi compared to 16.6% in the secular group (not statistically different).

These rather unexpected findings led the researchers to conclude that:

“Haredi and Secular women are equally at risk for disordered eating behaviour, warranting a cautious conclusion that rigorous religious adherence may not be protective against serious eating disturbances.”

In all groups, women with higher body weight and greater self-criticism were more likely to report disordered eating behaviours.

Overall, these findings certainly raise serious questions around the role of media and societal norms in promoting disordered eating, as the Haredi are remarkably segregated from mainstream Israeli society and their exposure to secular media is prohibited. It certainly seems that neither this isolation from media dictated norms nor their strict religious observance protects them from serious eating problems, which are at least as common in Haredi women as among adult secular women.

Clearly, this study raises a number of interesting issues in the discussion of the causes of eating disordered behaviour. At least, simply blaming the secular media, western societal norms, or weight-loss advise, may be far too simplistic an explanation for what really appears to be a much more complex problem than most people may believe.

I’d certainly appreciate hearing from readers whether or not they find these findings surprising or not all that unexpected?

Edmonton, Alberta

Feinson MC, & Meir A (2011). Disordered eating and religious observance: A focus on ultra-orthodox Jews in an adult community study. The International journal of eating disorders PMID: 21312205


  1. Think food issues in orthodox women would be more about the limited number of options for addictions – both for pleasure and for self abuse. Secular woman can smoke, drink, do drugs, shop till they drop, watch porn, are allowed far more variety in their sexual expression, or can throw all their emotions into high power careers. Secular woman also have far more options when it comes to food – all the way from not storing any food in the house to being able to choose from every single food item marketed.

    Food is also the one thing an Orthodox woman can control. If she’s unhappy in her relationship, she has very limited ability to negotiate for change. It is possible to achieve recognition and praise for a delicious meal. It’s also possible to reward and punish by cooking a favorite meal or making something not particularly pleasing. Food is also the one pleasure that can be restricted in fasts but cannot be totally denied to a human being.

    Food is also the one method of suicide that everyone has access to. In nursing homes, when the elderly have had enough, they clamp their mouths shut and refuse food and water. Dying from what one consumes is a much, much slower process unless there is a disease process such as diabetes or kidney disease, etc but it still is a way of expressing the desire to harm oneself.

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  2. I would think Orthodox/Haredi women and men both would have a tendency for obesity and also early heart attacks. There is nearly a WORSHIP of highly fatty/salty/sugary/starchy foods. Some of the most revered “religious” foods are challah (egg bread made with white flour, sugar and eggs), chopped liver made with chicken fat and liver which is high in cholesterol, etc. I wonder if there is a study of heart attack statistics and diabetic statistics among Haredi/Orthodox women and men. I am Jewish, by the way, and do not consider this article to be discriminatory. It is something I, myself, have wondered about.

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  3. Of course not. Because “religious orthodoxy” is Misogyny Central.

    Another DUH study, completely missing the bleeding obvious.

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  4. Someone has found a use for religion, a way to divide a population, and each group has it’s own diet. How interesting. Diet and religion are connected. They are equally strongly held beliefs, based on tradition where the dead are telling the living how to live. I will try science.

    It is my opinion that religions as just a series of concepts that are strictly followed without questioning, without thinking for oneself, without reason, followed out of some sense of duty or tradition. That is not to say that some of their beliefs are not good.

    The sugar and grain eating is similar belief based concept that is just ridged, equally ignorant, and anyone who has spent time studying the effects of sugar and grain would likely give them up. Diet is so mixed with religion that we need to leave both to recover from gross obesity. It is my belief that the poor nutritional information is being preached, just like religion.

    I live with my own beliefs, knowing that gods are just concepts. I also know that grains are good tasting mild poison to weight control, and sugar is similar. In 1903 we learned hydrogenation, and learned to manufacture an eatable seed oil from what had been lubricants and launched the heart attack industry. Today we manufacture calorie rich nutrient poor eatable products and created the obesity epidemic, and syndrome X. No one seem to care enough to provide the simple truth. We just do more studies, and ignore the blindingly obvious, once we look at it.

    For today, I will not eat sugar, grain, lubricants, and manufactured eatable products. Gods are just concepts. But what do I know.

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  5. I was surprised to see a 45% rate of disordered eating across all groups. Surely this can’t apply just to anorexia and bulimia, right? Can someone explain to me what “counts” as disordered eating?

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  6. I, too, am not surprised. Although I think the media can play a role and the quest for “thinness”–it is only a symptom of living in a patriarchal culture. We have these ads that promote society’s opinions of “beauty”, we have pressure to subscribe and try to meet these standards, but only because they are deemed so by those in power (read: patriarchy). Although the orthodox women may not have access to media pressures, they most likely live in a culture in which there is a certain power (gender) imbalance and less control over their lives and roles. Until women have complete control of their bodies, there is no true equality.

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  7. Not surprising. Eating disorders are caused by genetic propensity plus stress. Genes do not respond to level of religious observance, and being Jewish in the middle east is nothing if not stressful.

    Jewish cultures around the world have been persecuted and starved for thousands of years, and many of our traditions and rituals reflect the joy of having enough to eat. If eating = happiness, no wonder people eat or refuse to eat (or alternate between the two) when they’re unhappy.

    I found this the most interesting finding: “In all groups, women with higher body weight and greater self-criticism were more likely to report disordered eating behaviours.” A good reminder that not everyone with an eating disorder is underweight, and that shaming people for being overweight does not help them improve their eating.

    Thanks for the article.

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  8. People will be overweight as long as they eat improperly. I have done quite a bit of research and feel that we are eating a diet of too much carbohydrate and/or sugar. If its true that high insulin levels mean fat storage, and high carb levels mean high triglycerides, and high triglycerides mean more small LDL particles that cause plaques, then carb loaded diets are a problem. I’m not saying that we eliminate carbs from our diets, I’m saying that more research is needed on people who eat long term “mediterranean” diets and what their disease and inflammatory state is. So if the segregated Jewish women are eating high carb diets, they will be as fat as the rest of the population. The impetus for weight loss comes from both internal and external sources, as women realize how far they are from the “ideal”. It’s just plain fact that in this era, the ideal is Jennifer Aniston and the rest of us are measured in many respects by our distance from this ideal. We can be smart, efficient, educated, nice and pleasant looking, but there is something lacking if we aren’t “slim”. So an emphasis on healthy weight, eating well, being active, mental health, and knowledge about nutrition would be helpful.

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  9. Even without direct media influences, there is still tremendous pressure on haredi women to be thin. This may not come from external pressures directly, but haredi men often want a slim woman as a wife. As there is tremendous pressure on young haredi women to be desirable brides, there doesn’t need to be external pressure.
    Why do haredi men want skinny wives? That’s a good question, but I think it’s status as much as anything else. The haredi community isn’t less superficial than the secular community. Especially since haredi men and women who are dating can’t get to know each other in much depth before marrying, they don’t have much information to go on before marriage other than looks.
    I’m sure it cuts both ways — haredi women may also prefer a more slender man.

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  10. I actually don’t find these findings suprising at all. I think it’s an easy assumption to make if you don’t have an eating disorder. As long as thin is considered “in control” and over weight is considered “out of control” then you’re going to run into people with food (and other) issues.

    At the same time the way a person feeds and cares for themselves is merely a symptom of distress and not the distress itself.

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  11. I am also not surprised by this. Our culture and lifestyle have a serious problem and they are clueless.

    There have been a few articles about this in the Orthodox publications, but the silence in the community really speaks volumes. Therefore, I am not optimistic that our various religious communities, not organizational leadership is going do something beyond the few articles we will get.

    We got some lip service from Jewish action. I must give a shout-out to Norene Gilletz, who publishes healthful recipes. I don’t think the kosher food industry is doing enough to provide healthful foods, which is a reflection on what people will purchase. Also there is additional rigours with the kashrut of vegetables and no mainline hechshers for non-fat hard cheese products. I contacted some of the industries and there is no motivation to address this.

    I am Orthodox, and we have heart disease, diabetes and obesity in our families.
    My inlaws died before their time of heart disease and my husband had problems in his early 40’s.

    I am overweight myself and am finally doing something about it. I have invested significant time in exercise and how I cook. We now eat mostly vegetarian, no red meat (Brisket is the new treif) and healthful poultry recipes. Shabbat and Yom Tov are healthful and I am more vigilant about portions. We will not eat in a restaurant unless there are healthful choices.

    So — Who is with me? e I am loyal to the Orthodox and Halachic way of life, but I am literally and figurative FED UP! Unless I hear otherwise, I am on my own.

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