Nutritionists take aim at ultra-Orthodox diet, point to spiritual benefits of healthy food

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. Photo Credit: Seth Wenig / AP

By World Israel News staff

Members of the ultra-orthodox community in Israel are being encouraged to foster healthier eating habits by recognizing the spiritual benefits of taking care of their bodies, a study has suggested. Its authors hope that by emphasizing vegetables and fresh choices over cholent and challah, the high rates of obesity, diabetes and anemia within the community can be lowered.

The study, carried out by PhD candidate Chagit Peles, and PhD supervisors Prof. (Emeritus) Mary Rudolf and Dr. Miriam Bentwich at the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine of Bar-Ilan University, along with Dr. Netalie Shloim from the School of Healthcare at Leeds University, England, found a range of causes for poor nutrition with the community. The findings were published in the journal Appetite.

Some of these were general such as the cost of eating healthily, which has a particular impact on ultra-orthodox (haredi) families due to their large family size – on average, ultra-orthodox families in Israel have seven children. Ultra-orthodox mothers are also time-short in the mornings, and therefore tend to send their children to school with nutritionally poor foods which are quick and easy to prepare.

But other reasons were cultural, such as reduced access to information on nutrition due to restricted media access, and a preponderance of traditional sweet and fatty foods within the diet which are considered ‘sacrosanct’ on Shabbat.

The study also found a gender gap between boys and girls, with boys generally eating nutritionally poorer foods at school than their sisters are given at home. While some schools offer a mid-morning snack, it tends to be a sugary spread on white bread, which again offers little nutritional value.

As part of their work, the team conducted in-depth interviews with twenty leaders from within the Gur and Chabad communities in Israel, including rabbis, rabbi’s wives, educational and health professionals.

It recommended that any steps taken to combat poor nutrition take cultural factors into account. For example, instead of emphasizing physical health benefits, especially in the long term, the study suggests emphasizing the spiritual duty people have to take care of the bodies God gave them, drawing parallels with the spiritual duty to follow kashrut laws.

Efforts to change Shabbat eating habits need to be done with cultural sensitivity, encouraging healthier options alongside cholent and cola.

And the study also recommended giving young couples lessons on buying and preparing nutritious food within lessons preparing them for married life, so that they can foster good habits before they start to grow their families.

“Our findings have potential impact in Israel, where haredi families comprise a significant component of society, especially regarding the high number of young children. Strong haredi communities in other countries, such as the US, UK and Australia, are also likely to benefit, as are other closed religious communities, particularly those with large families who live in poverty and face similar issues,” says Prof. Rudolf.

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