Weighing In on Obesity in the Frum Community

by | in Wellness Report

Can We Create a More Health-Oriented and Less Food-Centric Culture?

Q: Does being frum put one at greater risk of obesity?

A: When it comes to religion and health, there’s an odd paradox. Religion tends to be somewhat protective of health, except when it comes to weight. People who participate in religious activities tend to smoke less and have better general health and lower overall mortality rates. But religious adults also tend to be more obese.

A recent study from Northwestern University, published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine, followed over 2,000 adults for eighteen years and discovered that those who participated in frequent religious activities—defined as at least once a week in this study—were 30 percent more likely to be obese than those who didn’t. One possible explanation for this increased risk is the emphasis on food at religious events with little discussion of moderation.

“It’s hard to go a week without hearing that we need to be learning more Torah, but you can go years without hearing a rabbi say we need to exercise.”

True, this study did not exclusively examine frum people. But the emphasis on food certainly applies to frum life. We’ve seen myriad articles addressing our religion’s heavy food-centric culture. (Case in point: Rabbi Reuven Spolter’s “Is Orthodoxy Unhealthy?” Jewish Action [spring 2011].) Additionally, there are other aspects of the frum lifestyle that present challenges to maintaining a healthy weight.

“Making time for things like exercise is very difficult,” says Dr. Mendel Singer, associate professor of public health at Case Western Reserve University and director of the Jewish Community Health Initiative (http://www.jewhealth.org/). “Frum women’s lives are overwhelming. And the men are always being told they need to be learning every spare minute. With work, doing homework with the kids, going out and learning in the evening—when do you exercise? And where do you exercise? Co-ed gyms are out for many Orthodox people.”

One of the main hindrances to following a healthy lifestyle, however, may be the fact that it’s simply not stressed, suggests Dr. Singer. “It’s hard to go a week without hearing that we need to be learning more Torah, but you can go years without hearing a rabbi say we need to exercise.”

One need only look to the Torah for assurance of the value of healthy living. Multiple sources instruct us to protect our health, including the oft-cited “Venishmartem meod lenafshoteichem” (Devarim 4:15). “Health is a true value, a halachic obligation,” says Dr. Singer. “We need to prioritize it.”

The Northwestern study highlights a potential solution for religious people who participate in regular religious activities: those places we congregate for spiritual endeavors can become forums for emphasizing the importance of health. Shuls are ideal venues for giving over nutrition and health information. People come together to listen to the rabbi speak multiple times per week, a great opportunity to reiterate the importance of moderating food intake and getting physical activity. These points need not be the premise of the whole lecture, but they can certainly be worked in occasionally.

Shuls can also host events that support embracing a healthier lifestyle—such as health fairs and lectures by health-care providers. If a shul member successfully lost and maintained his weight, why not invite him to share his story, lending encouragement to the congregation’s disheartened dieters? Overeating or other health-support groups can meet in the synagogue; healthy recipes and tips can be passed along the shul’s chain of communication, be it a printed newsletter or an e-mail listserv. Shuls can support healthful eating as well by modifying the food served at events, especially at the weekly kiddush.

Even if being frum puts us at greater risk of obesity (and the jury’s still out on that, since Orthodox Jews and obesity haven’t been studied specifically, to my knowledge), we cannot throw up our hands and resign ourselves to lives of paunch and piety. We all know devout individuals who are able to maintain a healthy lifestyle, eating wholesome foods and getting regular physical activity—even sufficient sleep—without forfeiting religious ideals. In fact, these goals become part of their religious ideals. We need to work, as a community, to create an environment that’s more conducive to leading healthy lifestyles.

Shira Isenberg is a registered dietitian and writer with a private nutrition practice in Nashville, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in public health nutrition from Hunter College in New York.

 To hear an interview with Dr. Mendel Singer on obesity in the frum community, visit http://www.ou.org/life/health/physical-health/orthodox-jews-less-obese-than-the-rest-of-world-stephen-savitsky/.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2012.

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