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Over 45 Years of Eating Disorder Specialty Practice
 

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"Eating disorders are on the rise in Jewish communities" on WBEZ 91.5
 
 
Letter to the Editor: 

Jewish United Fund of Chicago: Volume 41: No. 10 September 2011

From: Abigail Natenshon, psychotherapist and author

 

I believe that Judaism and Jewish family life have gotten an unfair shake in Cheryl Jacobs’ recent article (July JUF News) about eating disorders and Jewish women. The article was misleading in its implication that the incidence of eating disorders may be disproportionally higher among Jewish woman, and that the culture of Judaism itself may be at the root of disease onset in eating disordered women who are Jewish.  In fact, healthy values intrinsic in Judaism may act as a deterrent to the onset of these disorders and can potentially become enhancements to their recovery. 

 

Incidence

The New York and Philadelphia-based Renfrew Center in recent years cited statistics leading some to believe that there is a disproportionate number of Jews suffering from eating disorders.  The Center reported that 12 percent of its inpatient eating disorder population was Jewish, though Jews make up only two percent of the general population, and that lately there has been a 500% increase in the number of Jewish women they treat.  This statistic fails to take into account the centers’ proximity to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities.  

 

The reality is that eating disorders are on the rise amongst all upwardly mobile populations. Jacobs’ article cites a survey of Jewish women in Israel that found “15.2% of the total population in that country suffers from an eating disorder of some kind,” with similar estimates for Jewish women in the U.S.  Countering the theory that Jewish women are uniquely vulnerable, a 2008 study in the U.S. performed by SELF Magazine and the University of North Carolina shows evidence that 75% of American women have struggled with an eating disorder or experienced symptoms of an eating disorder, their behaviors cutting across racial and ethnic lines and status. It should also be noted that if not Jewish disorders, eating disorders are also not women’s disorders, as is seen in the increasing incidence of disease among males.

 

Causation

Within the Jewish tradition, Shabbat and holidays are typically celebrated through family and community-based observance and sanctified by food and eating-related rituals, causing some to believe that Jews may become more prone to developing eating-related disorders.  In fact, eating disorders are neuropsychiatric, biological disorders, with origins rooted in gene clusters and brain chemistries.  Environmental triggers (“Ess mein kinde”) do not the cause these disorders, though they could possibly be responsible for igniting pre-existing conditions within a genetically susceptible individual.  The article’s reference to “l’dor v’dor” has less to do with parental role modeling and more to do with genes that are passed to the child at the moment of conception.

 

Healing

Eating disorders are curable in 80% of cases where treated in an effective and timely manner. In fact, the culture of Judaism may enhance the potential for healing and/or prevention. One study provides evidence that a higher level of religious observance may serve to protect individuals from the development of body dissatisfaction and overall eating pathology; with a diminished focus on the secular values of beauty and thinness, a greater emphasis on morality and religious identification resulted in a lower incidence of mental health problems, stronger social networks and higher self esteem. 

 

Eating disorders are disorders of connection, dissociating victims from themselves, their family, and from a healthy relationship with food.  In countering this sense of radical isolation, historically, culturally, traditionally, Talmudically, in courts of law and on psychiatric couches, Judaism offers a tradition of profound self-searching and fearless self-awareness. Jews are problem solvers with a profound sense of the value of human existence and inter-generational ties. Torah sanctifies food and the act of eating, the body as the house of the soul, and the family unit as a mitigating force against society’s corrupting values. In understanding eating disorders and the forces behind their onset, it is important that we not shoot the messenger.

 

 
       
 
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