Jews and Eating Disorders:
Let’s Stop Shooting the Messenger
By Abigail H. Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP
Author of When Your Child
Has an Eating Disorder
By assuming that aspects of
Jewish observance may give rise to eating disorders, are we not shooting the
messenger? Though large numbers
of Jews struggle with eating disorders, it may not be our practice of faith,
but our turning away from Judaism that is the problem.
The magnitude of the epidemic of eating disorders and
disordered eating today clearly qualifies these disorders as public health
problems. Though there are 11 million reported cases, vast numbers of
victims of anorexia and bulimia remain undiagnosed and do not receive mental
health care. Eating disorders are primarily diseases of adolescence.
87 percent of victims are children under the age of 20. Girls as
young as age five are succumbing to body image concerns, the compulsion to
exercise and to be thin, and to pathological fears about gaining weight.
The most lethal of all the mental health disorders, eating disorders
are a misuse of food to resolve emotional problems; they are disorders of
self-esteem, self-regulation and life adjustment which occur in
approximately 10 percent of women and girls past puberty in America. On
college campuses, one out of five girls is a disordered eater, which can
trigger the onset of a clinical disease in genetically predisposed
individuals. The incidence of males
with eating disorders has doubled within the past decade.
It is a commonly held belief that there is a disproportionate
number of Jews with clinical eating disorders. The Renfrew Center of
Philadelphia at one point reported that 12 percent of their inpatient eating
disorder population was Jewish, despite the fact that Jews make up only two
percent of the general population. Another study in New York showed that
almost two-thirds of Orthodox girls are at risk of developing anorexia and
bulimia. #1 In actual fact, the extent of the problem among Jews relative
to the wider population remains uncertain.
What we do know for certain is that tens of thousands of Jews are
struggling with anorexia, bulimia, compulsive overeating, activity disorders
and derivatives thereof, a matter of deep concern to the Jewish community.
As a Jew and a psychotherapist who has specialized in the treatment
of eating disorders in individuals and families for the past 41 years, I
find the implications of the above statistics to be deeply troubling with
respect to Judaism and Jewish observance.
Is there something within the practice, values and culture of
Judaism that has somehow led to this pernicious epidemic among Jewish youth?
Data interpretation might imply that this is the case, bringing
various aspects of Jewish culture to bear and implicating traditional and
Orthodox Jewish observance. In seeking to explain the incidence of clinical
eating disorders amongst Jews, incriminating theories abound. Food and
eating has traditionally been the centerpiece of Jewish communal
celebration, holidays and traditional family lifestyle; “Ess, ess, mien
kinde” conjures up images of the stereotypic Jewish mother who demonstrates
her love by compulsively pushing food on her reluctant child. Demanding
parents who hold their children to rigorous standards of performance have
been said to foster perfectionism, or stimulate a “good girl” style of
rebellion through self-destructive behaviors and dietary manipulation.
Self-starvation has also been considered third generation identification
with Holocaust martyrdom.
It is my belief that Judaism and Jewish parenting and family
life have gotten an unfair shake. The location of the Renfrew Center close
to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world could be a factor in
skewing that study’s outcome, as might be the Jewish commitment to the
support of family and prioritizing financial resources to maintain a sick
child in such a healing facility. A greater prevalence of eating disorders
in the Orthodox Jewish community may have less to do with religiosity and
the culture of Judaism and Orthodoxy and more to do with the fact that the
self-discipline and prescribed precision required for Orthodox observance,
when applied to or turned against the self, can result in ritualized,
obsessive and self-destructive consequences for individuals who may be
genetically predisposed to compulsivity.
The origins of eating
Eating disorders cross all lines of socioeconomic class,
gender, age, color, ethnicity and culture across the board; a multitude of
diverse preconditions give rise to disease onset. Research now points
conclusively to evidence that the roots and origins of these diseases reside
significantly in genetics, in brain and body chemistries, and in personality
structure and temperament. Examples
of environmental triggers setting off these genetic propensities would
include the restructuring of the American family through divorce, remarriage
and family blending, ever-greater numbers of mothers in the workforce, and
children left to their own devices to fend for themselves at mealtimes.
During the past four decades, increasing numbers of Jewish kitchens are
becoming cooking-free, with only 50 percent of American families eat dinner
The second most significant factor giving rise to eating
disorders is upward mobility, a characteristic that Jews have enjoyed in our
society for decades. The 1960’s and 1970’s were notable for the profound
transformation in the role of women in society and for the changing
structure and values of the American family, Jewish and otherwise. It may
not be a mere coincidence that eating disorders, documented since the
fifteenth century, only came to public awareness in the early 1970’s. The
movement towards women’s liberation became a movement away from the practice
of Judaism for a great many families; as women lost significant aspects of
their connection with home and family, their children lost their connection
with their parents, families and communities, as well as with the values
that give life meaning and purpose. Living hectic and hurried lives devoted
to the new god of productivity demanded time and energy, and resulted in a
generation of Jewish parents who strayed from a commitment to a faith that
had for millennia provided a context of learning, morality, education,
esteem and identity… that fed and guided them even as they fed and guided
their children and families.
Both parents and children have never been as overindulged, or as
categorically deprived, of what they need the most.
Adults of all religions spend appreciably less time nourishing
children, listening to their concerns, exchanging ideas and observing
behaviors, guiding and providing limits and boundaries, structure and
security…none of which is without consequence.
Research shows that American parents
spend as little as 20 minutes a week engaged in significant substantive
communication with their children; 65 percent of children grow up with
televisions in their bedrooms, spending on average five and a half hours a
day with some form of technology, under-supervised, apart from parental
input and guidance, exposed to the tenets, traditions and lures of other
faiths and popular culture.
Parents have lost emotional track of their children. Most significantly,
parents and children alike have lost track of what healthy eating actually
is; they have forgotten, or never knew, that a moderate, balanced and
fearless relationship with food is as important a part of healthy living as
is sleep, study, work, recreation, relaxation, exercise, or prayer.
By attempting to fill gaping emotional voids and internal emptiness,
eating disorders are responses to a sense of alienation and disconnection
from others, from the self, and from meaningful living.
In addition, many parents have lost their sense of obligation
and responsibility to sustain a presence in their children’s lives, their
feelings of confidence and entitlement to share their wisdom and values with
their children throughout the life stages. Some parents, who believe that
children are born spontaneously competent, typically withdraw their
influence prematurely, operating under the misconception that they have
nothing much to teach and that children don’t have much need or use for
their guidance anyway, particularly into their teenage and young adult
years. Many parents “walk on
eggshells” with their children, particularly when it comes to food, eating
and weight management, fearful that any form of confrontation might result
in hostility and loss of love. It is not atypical for parents of children
with eating disorders and health professionals alike to assume that parental
involvement in their child’s healing process is inappropriate and intrusive,
breaching confidentiality, crossing boundaries, invading privacy, and
negating the child’s burgeoning independence. In actual fact, research has
proven otherwise, demonstrating that appropriate and enlightened parental
involvement is pivotal in achieving and sustaining a timely recovery for
anorexic children who, as a result of their illness, have temporarily lost
the capacity to exercise healthy self-regulation.
Judaism as a healing
The question we need to ask ourselves is “What do our children
really hunger for?” And, “Mightn’t the wheel that we as Jewish parents seek
to reinvent already exist?” Historically and traditionally, Judaism as a
religion is based on human connectedness, responsibility for self and
others, and the sanctity of the human body as the house of the soul.
The Torah values food as an object of holiness to be eaten with
forethought and consciousness of purpose in prescribed ways, with
appreciation, gratitude and structure.
It sanctions traditional roles of parents and children… “Honor Thy
Father and Thy Mother”…prescribing a healthful attachment and appropriate
bonding and communication between parent and child.
In fact, evidence indicates that Judaism can be a
protection against eating
disorders. A study presented at the 2000 Academy of Eating Disorders annual
professional meeting investigating the differences in body dissatisfaction
and eating disorders between Orthodox and secular Jewish women showed that a
higher level of religious observance may serve to
protect individuals from the development of body dissatisfaction and
overall eating pathology… that a diminished focus on the secular values of
beauty and thinness, and a greater emphasis on morality and religious
identification resulted in a lower incidence of mental health problems.
The study also showed that stronger social networks and religious
affiliation resulted in higher self esteem.
If secular Jews exhibit more symptoms than Orthodox Jews, mightn’t we
extrapolate from this study that religious observance by itself
is not the determining factor that predisposes Jews towards these
diseases, and that it may be the wholesale
turning away from the practice of
religion that has in some respects contributed to the rampant spread of
eating disorders amongst Jews?
Historically, culturally, traditionally, Talmudically, in
courts of law and on psychiatric couches, Jews are problem solvers. As a
people challenged throughout history, they have had little choice but to
become so in order to survive.
Through a profound sense of the value of human existence, a communal and
collective consciousness, and the age-old commitment to care for our own,
every Jewish child who is ill belongs to every Jewish parent,
just as the story we tell at the
Pesach table is each participant’s own personal tale. A tradition of
profound self-searching and fearless self-awareness, together with a
commitment to proactively-based
responses to problems personal and communal set Jews apart from other
peoples. Historically, Jews in their searching have looked to Torah and
Judaism as an unparalleled source of answers and solutions to problems.
That has been the Jewish way and it has worked for 5000 years.
Why should it be any different now?
By turning away from Judaism and its values, in essence
turning their backs on the priority of family life connections, Jewish
parents have minimized their capacity to mitigate the effects of society’s
corrupting values on their children.
Lost is the child’s connection to many meaningful issues beyond
himself or herself. Lost is the
opportunity to develop the sound judgment, internal controls and moral
discipline that come with elements of observance….in all too many instances
these voids are replaced by addictions or other extreme and excessive
lifestyles. Lost is the potential for the child to become powerfully
identified with a prideful history, to develop respect for body and self
that comes with an association with a righteous culture and heritage. Lost
is the likelihood of marrying within the faith and carrying on Jewish
Ultimately, Jewish parents and children who turn away from
Jewish observance forfeit assets,
values and a lifestyle which evoke self-esteem, self-regulation, along with
a commitment to healthy living; they forfeit a meaningful, “mitzvahdik”
existence which carries with it the potential to minimize behavioral and
attitudinal triggers conducive to setting off an eating disorder. As Jews,
in negating what is best about Judaism, haven’t we been guilty of shooting
Taking action to prevent
and heal eating disorders….
Set standards for a balanced
eating and exercise lifestyle at home. Everyone in your household should be
eating three nutritious meals a day.
Prepare meals and expect
your family to enjoy them together as often as possible.
Discuss your thoughts,
feelings and values with your children. Speak until you are heard.
Understand how your own
attitudes about food influence your child, and try to keep them separate
from your child's issues.
Hear the feeling messages
behind your child's statements; respond to your child, not to the food she
Learn as much as you can
before reaching out for help. Knowledge is power.
If your child has an eating disorder;
Keep expectations realistic
for yourself, your child, the treatment process, and the professionals.
Remember that you are dealing with a highly imperfect science and that you
need to be involved in the care of children, particularly those who reside
in your home.
Set goals for yourself and
meet them. They will keep you focused and productive.
Remember that there are many
"right" ways to do things.
Begin your foray into the
community of health care providers knowing that your child deserves the very
best and that your purpose is to make sure she or he gets it.
Excerpted from When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder; A
Step-by-Step Workbook for Parents and Other Caregivers (by Abigail H.
Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP
Jossey Bass Publishers, page 57)
Jewish Resources for Eating
Union of American Hebrew
Congregations: Litapeyach Tikvah-To
Kolet: Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rosh Chodesh group
curriculum for disease prevention in the Jewish schools.
The Jerusalem Report July 5,
1999 When the Woman of Valor has
Dare, Christopher. MD,
Eilser, Ivan, PhD;
Family Therapy for Anorexia Nervosa;
Psychiatric Institute, London, England.
Gluck Marci, PhD,
Body Dissatisfaction and Eating
Behaviors:Orthodox vs. Secular Jewish Women.
St. Luke’s’/Roosevelt Hospital,
Obesity Research Center, Columbia University College of Physicians and
Surgeons, New York, N.Y.