How can ultra-Orthodox dietary habits be improved? - study

A new study by the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine of Bar-Ilan University analyzed the dietary habits of the ultra-Orthodox community and offered steps to improve them.

YOUNG HAREDI students in Rehovot last year. (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)
YOUNG HAREDI students in Rehovot last year.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)

Poor dietary habits in the ultra-Orthodox community can be altered based on a few simple steps, according to a new study by PhD candidate Chagit Peles at Bar-Ilan University's Azrieli Faculty of Medicine.

The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish community, having an average of seven children per family, is characterized by poor diet, high rates of obesity, anemia and diabetes.  The study aimed to assist parents in providing their children with healthier nutrition, in order to prevent the development of chronic diseases later in life.

Twenty key leaders from the Gur and Chabad ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel – including rabbis, rabbis' wives, parents, and educational and health professionals – were interviewed in-depth for the study, which was published in the journal Appetite and reviewed and revised by Prof. (Emeritus) Mary Rudolf, also from the Azrieli Faculty of Bar-Ilan University, and Dr. Netalie Shloim from the School of Healthcare at Leeds University in northern England.

A number of recurring themes led the researchers to formulate these key lessons:

1. Spiritual Benefit

Pitching efforts to increase healthy eating are not likely to resonate within the ultra-Orthodox community unless the message includes a shift from improving physical health to the benefits healthy nutrition can have on spiritual work and study. For example, individuals might be more likely to eat more healthily if they are convinced that it is their spiritual responsibility to take care of their God-given bodies, just like it is their spiritual responsibility to practice the laws of kashrut.

2. Awareness

Lack of awareness due to restricted media access, cost of food and preparation time of kosher food all contribute to poor nutrition within these communities. Through community-based participatory research, educators can work together directly with community members to find solutions to current challenges.

3. Cost

Kashrut itself is not a major impediment to healthy eating, although costs might be higher. This is particularly true for (inspected) vegetables and legumes.

4. School Diet

The significant gender gap between boys and girls in health perception and practice. Unlike girls, whose meals are largely eaten at home and who eat healthier meals, boys from a relatively young age eat most of their meals in school or religious studies academies (yeshivot), where nutritional quality is especially poor. As such, the research suggests that greater attention be focused on building a healthy nutritional environment and promoting healthy eating habits within these school settings.

5. Shabbat Diet

Traditional foods, including sweet and fatty foods, are considered ‘sacrosanct’ on the Sabbath. Therefore, attempts to prescribe changes in Shabbat eating customs must be addressed with awareness of, and strict sensitivity to, cultural beliefs. Cholent and sweet challah bread can be limited while increasing vegetables, salads and other healthy foods. Sweet beverages can be replaced by soda water, and snacks containing natural sugars that are healthy, tasty and quick to make should be encouraged.

6. Early Motherhood

Preparation time and cost of kosher food are particular burdens that peak during early ultra-Orthodox motherhood.

7. Breakfast

Breakfast, whose benefits to children are well known, is problematic among ultra-Orthodox families due to the requirement to pray and bless food at a hectic time of day. The lack of breakfast is a concern for children of all ages, and solutions need to be found which meet religious requirements while taking preparation time into consideration.

 PhD candidate Chagit Peles analyzed dietary habits in the ultra Orthodox community and offered concrete steps to improve them. (credit: Courtesy) PhD candidate Chagit Peles analyzed dietary habits in the ultra Orthodox community and offered concrete steps to improve them. (credit: Courtesy)

If these lessons and recommendations are implemented, the haredi community may benefit from a decrease in nutrition-related disorders, the study says.

"Our findings have potential impact in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox families comprise a significant component of society, especially regarding the high number of young children," Rudolf said.

"Strong ultra-Orthodox 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."