Anyone who goes to a supermarket in an Israeli ultra-Orthodox (haredi) neighborhood or city and then compares it with one in a non-religious place will immediately notice the differences. In the haredi store, there are huge expanses of cheap junk food and sweets, not to mention bags of diapers, and at the checkout counters, there are fewer bags of fruits and vegetables, nuts and other healthful food.
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community Israel – totaling over 1.1 million people and with on average seven children per family, is characterized by poor diet and high rates of type 2 diabetes, obesity and anemia. To prevent the development of chronic diseases later in life, it is essential to help parents provide their children with better nutrition, according to researchers at the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine in Safed, part of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan (near Tel Aviv).
A new study of dietary habits in the ultra-Orthodox community, conducted by the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine of Bar-Ilan University, reveals some of the origins of poor nutrition and offers concrete solutions to nutritionists and health care professionals on how to promote healthier eating practices.
The research, published in the journal Appetite under the title “Over-preoccupation with healthy food is perceived as worship of the body”: Food, culture and beliefs in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish families,” was conducted by Chagit Peles, a doctoral candidate at the faculty, supervisors Prof. (emeritus) Mary Rudolf and Dr. Miriam Bentwich and Dr. Netalie Shloim from the School of Healthcare at Leeds University in northern England.
Twenty key leaders from the Gur and Chabad hassidic communities in Israel – including rabbis, rabbis’ wives, parents and educational and health professionals – were interviewed in-depth for about an hour each for the study, which disclosed a significant gender gap between boys and girls in health perception and practice.
Unlike girls, whose meals are largely eaten at home and who eat more healthful meals, boys from a relatively young age eat most of their meals in school or religious studies academies (yeshivas), where nutritional quality is especially poor. The researchers recommend that greater attention be focused on building a healthy nutritional environment and promoting healthful eating habits within these school settings.
Those ultra-Orthodox people who were interviewed said that pitching efforts to increase healthful eating are not likely to impress and influence the haredi sector 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-nutritious food if they are persuaded that it is their spiritual responsibility to take care of the bodies that God gave them, just like it is their spiritual responsibility to practice the laws of kashrut.
In general, current health promotion efforts tend to emphasize healthful eating as a way to prevent chronic illness later in life. In some haredi communities, consideration of health five or six decades into the future –
especially in communities that believe the Messiah will arrive long before then – is unlikely to be meaningful. A new emphasis on the benefits that healthy eating has on learning may well prove more effective.
“Dietary habits vary from home to home in the ultra-orthodox community but are mostly influenced by the mother. The mother’s role in the home is central and she is responsible for all aspects of nutrition and feeding the family. Girls learn to feed siblings from a young age, influenced by their mothers’ nutritional modeling. The centrality of motherhood in general, and in relation to nutrition in particular, was emphasized clearly by a number of informants: ‘Look, motherhood is a major role for us, it’s a career,’ ” the team wrote.
In all sectors of Israeli society, children bring their own food to school. This is a red light for poor nutrition nationwide. Ultra-Orthodox mothers are under great pressure in the morning to ensure that their many children get to school on time. As such, the food children bring to school is generally nutritionally poor, containing neither vegetables nor fruit and often being a sandwich made of cheap white bread with chocolate spread on it. In some schools, a mid-morning snack may be provided, but it is also generally white bread and a high-sugar spread on it. Educating school staff to encourage health-minded behavior is essential, as is the removal of vending machines that sell unhealthful snacks and sugary drinks, the researchers wrote.
Traditional meals that include sweet and fatty foods are considered mandatory in many haredi homes on Shabbat. Therefore, attempts to prescribe changes in weekend eating customs must be addressed with awareness of and strict sensitivity to cultural beliefs, they continued. Fatty potato stews (cholent) and sweet halla bread can be limited while increasing vegetables, salads and other healthful foods. Sweet beverages can be replaced by water or unflavored carbonated water, and snacks containing natural sugars that are healthful, tasty and quick to make should be encouraged, they urged.
Lack of awareness due to restricted media access, the high cost of food, and longer preparation time of kosher food (checking for forbidden tiny insects) 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, said the Azrieli team.
Just like young couples receive preparatory lessons about married life and building a home together before they wed, Peles said these lessons should also include information about nutrition, buying healthier foods and healthful cooking to give parents the tools necessary to ensure the nutritional health of their children. Peles is currently designing a program, in collaboration with Leeds University, to encourage young families to create a healthier home environment before their first baby is born.
“Our findings have potential impact in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox families comprise a significant component of society, especially regarding the large number of young children. Strong ultra-Orthodox communities in other countries, such as the US, United Kingdom 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,” concluded Rudolf.