Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community

Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community

Eating Disorders Seminar

Recently I was lucky enough to join a seminar in south Florida for educators and clinicians, “Feasting, Fasting & Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community”.

The organizer, well-known eating disorder specialists The Renfrew Center, told us the seminar was in direct response to the ‘noticeable spike throughout the country (USA) in Jewish patients’. Whilst the rates of Jewish patients with disordered eating are similar to the general community, the reasons behind them differ.

For treatment of Jewish patients to have any chance of success their therapists first must appreciate the strong traditions, religious rituals and level of religious observance in their patients.

Living in a multi-cultural society (especially in London) I could see how relevant this is to other religions and cultures. Both women and food play central roles in most strong ethnic communities.

Professor Marjorie Feinson, PhD

Eating disorder and body image specialist, Professor Marjorie Feinson, PhD.

Professor and researcher Dr. Marjorie Feinson, PhD, began the seminar with an overview of eating problems in the Jewish community, with the emphasis on binge eating among adult Jewish women. Of the adult Jewish respondents in Dr. Feinson’s study over 50% had problems with binge eating behaviours, although only one third of the women were obese.

Unsurprisingly, the binge eating was linked to high levels of self-criticism and serious body image concerns.There isn’t much research specifically about Jewish women as they are usually combined with other minority groups, but there is “research emerging showing just how much binge eating is triggered by trauma. The resulting emotional eating is a coping mechanism.” What was unexpected, however, was that levels of religious observance did not make a significant difference to those with serious binge eating disorder (BED).

Dr. Feinson told us she had started her research in 1999, and depressingly (I felt) she “wasn’t sure if anything much had changed”.

Sarah Bateman, a Social Worker and therapist who works with Jewish patients, helped us by explaining Jewish observances and their clinical implications. She took us through the religious categories of American Judaism as well as the practices and attitudes of each towards women, dress, dating, marriage and appearance. The strict dietary laws of the more observant, she told us, often led to “restrictive eating patterns and problematic food rituals.”

Looking at the sheer number of food-centred Jewish religious and cultural traditions – each of which can cause triggering-  shows how difficult it is for the therapist and the patient.

Food plays a central role in weekly Shabbat (Sabbath) festival meals – comparable to Christmas or Thanksgiving meals. Every week. The twelve major Jewish holidays and Festivals annually include Passover, with eight days of ritual food do’s and do not’s.  Even Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Jews fast for 25 hours, comes with ‘before and after the Fast’ recipes.

The Shabbat Table

An entire book on the Shabbat meal.

It’s no wonder there are problems helping Jewish women with eating disorders.

Every compulsive eater hates being in the kitchen.” Absolutely.

So what can you do when powerful family traditions make it the Jewish women’s responsibility to feed the family and prepare the food?

When in religious households women are expected to not only prepare meals but to make their own bread, special cakes and pastries?

Is this traditional expectation “embedded in Jewish DNA“?

Maybe. But in a society where ‘thinner is prettier’ you begin to understand the increase in and difficulty in treating eating disorders among Jewish women.

Even more so when you add:-

  • Kashrut, ‘kosher’ dietary laws which can be used as an excuse for restrictive, rigid eating, e.g. “I don’t eat this…”
  • Feasting, which can lead to patterns of binge eating.
  • Fasting, which can lead to the ‘normalization of rigid eating‘.

The pressures are contradictory. Jewish women are expected to cook and eat and remain slim and marriageable, all at the same time.

Not so easy, is it?

Treating disordered eating is always complicated, but even more so when dealing with strong religious and cultural traditions. By appreciating the complexities involved we can all aid in recovery. And, perhaps, save a life.

Need help and more information?

In the US The Renfrew Center can be contacted via their website Their ‘Observant Jewish’ special program is sensitive to the traditions and dietary customs of their Jewish patients. You can find them on twitter: @renfrewcenter . In the UK?  I suggest you first contact ‘BEAT’, the UK’s leading charity supporting those with eating disorders and body image issues, either via their website,, or twitter @beatED. 


The Renfrew Centre Foundation for Eating Disorders

The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders


Leading UK eating disorder charity

Leading UK eating disorder charity

















1 comment to Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community

  • Rose

    Was waiting for your report after you told me about going to the talk.
    Very interesting but I think control has lots to do with diet.
    Maybe and maybe not

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