Eating Disorders May Lurk Among Very Religious

The HealthGal Health Guide
  • The religion commands a fast every year for 25 hours, but members of the Jewish community, particularly the orthodox, sometimes embrace the idea of fasting too seriously and allow it to become the fulcrum for a full-fledged eating disorder.  Unfortunately, this disorder often gets perpetuated by parents who, seeking a match for their underweight daughter, delight in her slim "attractiveness" as a valuable marital bargaining chip.  To further complicate the problem, though parents, matchmakers and prospective husbands value the svelte bride, they do fear an possible eating disorder because it may signifiy mental instability or emotional issues.  One prominent eating disorder specialist in New York recently evaluated some specific Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox and Syrian communities, and found that 1 in 19 Orthodox girls had an eating disorder, a rate 50% higher than in the general population. 

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    Eating experts maintain that even those numbers may reflect under-reporting of the illness in the Jewish community, and they recognize that eating disorders can be exacerbated by the strict kosher eating rules and other ritualistic demands that the religion places upon devout followers.  And because this sect of the Jewish population is very modest and private, sometimes a proxy is sent for help in lieu of the actual patient presenting herself.  The trend may be slowly changing, since even drug abuse, in the past a taboo subject is now being openly discussed, with treatment centers and support groups administering to observant Jews struggling with the problem.


    In the Jewish community food and eating is center to many of the religious observances and customs.  Then there are the rules that govern separating meat and dairy products, use of separate dishware and silverware, rules that govern acceptable ingredients, dietary rules that delineate meat and fish that is permitted, rules that govern how you prepare and cook food, use an oven and microwave, and even wash dishes.  All this rigidity is a breeding ground for an eating disorder.  And the community at present only seems to seek help for young women when the disorder becomes a life-threatening illness, too late a time for many.  If treatment and therapy is successful, having to face holidays like Yom Kippur can instigate a relapse. 


    On the other hand, a mantra of the Jewish religion is that the body is the temple of your soul.  G-d lends the human body to man for use during his lifetime, so man should commit to returning a healthy, strong, well- nourished body back to G-d upon death.  Healing from an eating disorder and then nourishing your body and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is actually in keeping with the core Judaic values that are emphasized.


Published On: January 19, 2011