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