Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community
According to a recent article in the Washington Post, eating disorders among Orthodox Jewish women and, to a lesser extent, others in the Jewish community, are currently under-reported. Families tend to seek help, the article states, only when the disorder is at an advanced stage, largely because of the stigma that can surround mental illness. The second reason for hesitating to seek help is the desire to stay slim to attract potential partners. Finally, eating disorders can become a coping mechanism for stress, anxiety and high expectations, since they are less stigmatized in the community than drug or alcohol abuse.
Eating disorders affect all demographics, regardless of gender or religion. There are many misconceptions regarding eating disorders, which lead individuals and families to obtain help at a late stage.
Nor are women the only ones affected or whose disorders are being under-reported. In fact, males account for 10 percent of all cases of eating disorders in the US, yet their illness is often ignored or misdiagnosed for various reasons.
Because Shabbat, kashrut and other customs and rituals in Orthodox Jewish life involve food, individuals may hesitate to seek help from health professionals who do not understand these traditions. Because food is central to Jewish culture, it is important for those with disorders to be treated by professionals who understand or who are willing to learn more about traditions and holidays that may involve periods of fasting and indulgence.
Early intervention is critical, since research has shown that the chances of recovery from debilitating eating disorders are increased when the disorder is caught early.
Early diagnosis is particularly important in the case of anorexia nervosa, whose death rate is 12 times higher than that associated with all causes of death for females aged 15 to 24. Typical symptoms of this disorder include emaciation, a refusal to eat in the presence of others and compulsive exercise. Many people are unaware that one of the biggest challenges in severe anorexia is simply gaining enough weight so that organs do not suffer permanent damage. The process of recovery can be incredibly taxing for those with the disease and their families, and rehabilitation success rates can be low when the disease is caught at a late stage.
Families also need to be aware of disorders such as binge eating (here, a person may binge, often feeling guilty afterwards, yet not resort to purging. Their weight may not fluctuate or they may actually gain instead of lose weight, yet this is still a disorder requiring diagnosis and treatment). Finally, there is EDNOS — eating disorder not specified — whose sufferers may have an unhealthy relationship to food, yet not fit into one of the other established categories. EDNOS, too, needs to be treated if permanent damage to the body is to be avoided.
Battling eating disorders in the Jewish community also has an important psychological component; females especially are subject to great pressure from the media to be thin and to have a specific body image. Therefore, parents and the community as a whole should encourage self-acceptance and love, regardless of size or shape.