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Study Shows Haredi and Secular Women Face Equal Risk of Eating Disorders


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Photo Credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90

Ultra-Orthodox and secular women are more similar than they may think — at least when it comes to disordered eating.

Disordered eating is the catch-all term for binge eating, out-of-control eating and other related problematic behaviors. (Eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia are considered psychiatric disorders.) A landmark study completed in Israel discovered that across the religious spectrum disordered eating affects about 15 percent of Jewish women. The percentage is considered the norm for the general rate of disordered eating among adult women in the U.S.

Authored by Marjorie Feinson and Adi Meir, the study was published in The International Journal of Eating Disorders. The results surprised at least one of the researchers:

“I thought for sure there would be more eating problems in the [religious] Jewish community than in the general population,” said Feinson who is a  Senior Researcher at the Falk Institute for Behavioral Health Studies in Israel. “I was wrong about that. I also thought there would be substantially more problems in the Ultra-Orthodox community compared to the secular Jewish community, because of the number of ritual meals. In addition to Shabbat, there [are] holidays in which food is the central theme.”

The study followed 800 Jewish women between the ages of 21-80 recruited from health clinics across Israel. The women filled out a questionnaire and then participated in a lengthy phone interview.

The study reported that a high-number of Haredi women  responded to the survey, which is important because data on the Ultra-Orthodox is rare. Additionally, research and statistics about disordered eating among women above high school age is scarce — media attention is usually focused on eating disorders in adolescence.

“The eating problems you might have had transform [with age] and are no longer anorexia or bulimia,” she said. “It’s a combination of different types of eating symptoms. Anorexia and bulimia are what the media are interested in. We know nothing about serious eating problems over the age of 25.”

Haredi women suffering from eating issues also face a particular set of challenges.

“Women have more traditional roles in the Ultra-Orthodox communities,” Feinson said. “They’re primarily responsible for feeding the family and, in addition, there are exceptionally large families to feed on a regular basis. The average number of children in the Ultra-Orthodox community is 6-8, compared to 2-3 in the secular community.”

Feinson said that a preliminary analysis reveals a high percentage of women with disordered eating have a history of abuse in childhood.

Females have a higher risk of suffering from disordered eating behavior.

“The biggest risk factor for developing an eating disorder is being born female,” Said Adrienne Ressler, the National Training Director for The Renfrew Center, a 25-year-old institution that treats eating disorders. The institution opened a track for religious Jewish women in 2009. “Females are much more susceptible. Women are 90 percent more likely to develop an eating disorder than males within the Jewish community.”

The study also noted that belonging to the Ultra-Orthdox population doesn’t help prevent disorder eating either.

“Apparently, strict adherence to religious traditions and an insular existence do not protect Haredi women from serious eating problems,” the study concluded.

About the Author: Michael Orbach is the Senior New York Correspondent for JewishPress.com. His work has appeared in the JTA, The Forward, The Jewish Week and Tablet. He was previously the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Star newspaper in Long Island. He is finishing up a novel.


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