The phrase “Eating disorders do not discriminate” is one that I’ve seen going around a lot recently. This phrase cannot be truer, as eating disorders can be present in people of all ages, genders, races, cultures, backgrounds, and religions. They can also present in people of all different shapes, sizes, and body types. One of the cultures in which eating disorders are widely present is the Jewish culture. Despite their prevalence, eating disorders are quite underreported in this population. A study on Jewish women showed that they are more than twice as likely to develop eating disorders when compared to women of other religious backgrounds.
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Before we dive in and discuss some of the reasons behind this, let’s first explore the risk factors for eating disorders that are unique to the Jewish community.
Risk Factors in the Jewish Community include:
1. High Achieving Mentality
This is something that Jewish culture promotes and as a result, Jewish people in general are very high achieving. There is pressure to excel professionally and academically. This pressure can be a trigger for the development of an eating disorder.
2. Sense of Community/Pressure to Conform
A strong sense of community is an integral part of Jewish culture. This can be very beneficial and lead to a rich, beautiful life. This can also create a significant amount of pressure to conform. The pressure will look different depending on the community. For example, Orthodox Jews tend to marry young. Due to this norm, when individuals reach what is deemed “marriageable age” there is a pressure to marry. That in turn puts additional pressure on appearance because those looking to get married are told that they need to be thin to do so.
3. Holidays and the Sabbath
Jewish culture includes a number of meaningful holidays throughout the year as well as the weekly Sabbath. In all these instances, large, multiple-course meals are served. Think of it as Thanksgiving each week. These occasions can be a wonderful opportunity for family and friends to bond. However, for those struggling with the influences of diet culture and with disordered eating patterns, it can be hard. For someone in recovery from an eating disorder, the larger meals as well as the change in meal scheduling can be overwhelming.
4. Fast Days
The Jewish religion includes a number of fast days throughout the year, some more strict in observance than others. Each fast day commemorates a time in Jewish history, however, fasting (or the fact that others are fasting) can be triggering for someone struggling with disordered eating and can be challenging for someone in recovery.
5. Weight Stigma
As with many other cultures, weight stigma is quite present in the Jewish community. Although there are individuals working against this, they are few and far between. The vast majority of the Jewish population still idealizes thin bodies over others. This makes it more likely for someone to engage in ED behaviors to achieve that “ideal” thin body.
What Does This Mean for the Jewish Community?
Now that we’ve covered the risk factors and have a better understanding of the Jewish population, let’s take a moment to reflect. We know that eating disorders are severe mental illnesses from which recovery is possible but extremely challenging. We now know that when someone who is part of the Jewish community struggles with disordered eating/eating disorders there may be some added stumbling blocks on the road to recovery. First off, the stigma around ED’s can make getting diagnosed and having the support to find the right care hard. Once treatment is started, the issues mentioned above can make it difficult for someone to move forward with recovery. Again, recovery is possible, however, it is important to recognize and be sensitive to the challenges this population faces.
Closing Thoughts on Eating Disorders in the Jewish Population
Thank you for reading this resource on eating disorders in the Jewish community. I want to wrap up by emphasizing that the Jewish religion is a beautiful, rich religion with deeply rooted values, beliefs, traditions, and a wonderful sense of community. There are a tremendous amount of positive outcomes from these values and traditions. At times, when the environment for an eating disorder is present as well as some of the other predisposing factors, the sense of community and traditions may trigger the development of an eating disorder. Let’s try to be sensitive to that.
For providers, that means asking the right questions and screening for eating disorders when appropriate. For everyone else, that means being mindful of the comments you make about food and body.
Let us all work toward challenging diet culture, and accepting people of all sizes without judgment. Let’s try and create safe spaces in which we can all be proud of our individuality and be able to thrive despite our size.
Courage to Nourish is a group of eating disorder specialized dietitians. We have in person locations in Alexandria, Virginia, Columbia, Maryland. and College Park, Maryland. We offer virtual services across the state of Virginia, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. We offer individual nutrition therapy. As well as support groups. We would love to guide you in building a better relationship with food.
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I previously worked at an eating disorder treatment center and have experience in various levels of care including outpatient. I joined Courage to Nourish so I can pursue my passion for dismantling diet culture and reducing weight stigma. I enjoy working with all individuals and particularly enjoy working with pregnant/postpartum clients and adults struggling to break free from bingeing, restricting, or diet culture. I’m a great listener, patient, compassionate, and aim to meet my clients where they’re at in recovery. I would love to work with you!