Does Jewish Culture and Religion Make Women Prone to Eating Disorders?

Photos by Leslie Minora
Adrienne Ressler, eating disorder and body image specialist, talks to the crowd about Jewish culture and eating disorders. ​ ​ ​
Potato knishes, challah bread, rugulah pastries -- face it, Jewish people have some tempting food options. And with weekly Shabbat and tons of food-filled holidays, not to mention a widely held penchant for food-pushing matriarchs, Jewish women are not culturally positioned to be effortlessly slender.

Though conversations surrounding food and holiday traditions are usually jovial, there is a serious issue at hand here -- Jewish women, with culturally prescribed days of feast and fasting, are at risk for eating disorders. This is why the Renfrew Center Foundation, the country's largest eating disorder treatment network, this week brought to Dallas a seminar titled Food, Body Image, and Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community

About 30 mental health professionals gathered at the Crescent Club in Uptown to hear two experts speak on the subject. Adrienne Ressler, the National Training Director for the Renfrew Center and a body image specialist, said that observant Jewish women are prone to suppressing their desires to adhere to cultural and religious expectations and requirements. "In Jewish tradition, we want to be the brightest, we want to be the best, and sometimes that gets taken so far," she said. "They may feel that they can't control their life, but they can control their weight."

Marjorie Feinson, PhD, a consultant for the Renfrew Center and the principal investigator for a study on eating disorders and abuse among women in Israel, told the group that in her community survey, 15.2 percent of women had seriously disordered eating and 28 percent had considerably disordered eating, as defined by a list of clinical symptoms. Feinson said that the numbers she found through her study in Israel are consistent with data she's examined about the general population in the United States. Another significant number the researcher noted was that 64 percent of those with seriously disordered eating had experienced either mental, physical or sexual abuse. That's huge. 

"These are not people in  treatment," Feinson stressed. Surprising to some  was the fact that anorexia and bulimia are far less prevalent than binge eating. And binge eating is largely overlooked because it is not formally defined as a clinical disorder, though this is expected to change. Obesity epidemic? Yes, this is all interconnected.

Toward the end of Feinson's morning lecture, she told the story of an obese woman in Israel who came to her for help. The woman was a binge eater, and when Feinson told her to avoid the kitchen as much as possible, she balked. The woman had 13 adult children and was responsible for cooking Shabbat dinner for them and their families. The preparation would start days ahead of the weekly holiday, and trays of delicious foods would be around all the time, ripe for picking. Baking was the hardest thing for her. She was more concerned about the misery of preparing challah while struggling to control her eating than she was with more serious health concerns. Her eating habits were simply not healthy. They were out of control. 

Finally, through conversations with Feinson, the woman came to the conclusion that it would help her immensely to start recovery by giving her daughter the duty of baking the challah bread. Small steps like this, Feinson said, are integral to recovery.

Wrapping up her lecture, Feinson lightened the mood, drawing participants' attention to a beautiful breakfast spread. "So, having said that, I invite you to have some breakfast," she said.