Eating and food preparation are important parts of the Jewish culture. Certain food restrictions are a key part of staying close to religious traditions for some Jewish people. Most Jewish celebrations are accompanied by kosher food, and for people who are susceptible to eating disorders, it can be tough to fully enjoy all that the Jewish culture has to offer. For people who are living with eating disorders or disordered eating patterns, keeping kosher can present certain challenges that require special attention when it comes to the recovery process.
Here, we’ll explore whether Jewish people are more likely to develop eating disorders than people in other cultures, what the word kosher means, how individuals in recovery can keep kosher, and how our eating disorder recovery program allows you to stay true to religious dietary restrictions.
Are Jewish People at a High Risk of Developing Eating Disorders?
People from all races and cultures can develop eating disorders and patterns of disordered eating. For some people who are already susceptible to eating disorders due to genetic and environmental factors, the addition of religious dietary restrictions–such as keeping kosher–may make it harder to maintain a healthy mindset when it comes to food.
A 2008 study showed that Jewish females were more likely to develop disordered eating patterns than those of non-Jewish descent. A 2016 study showed that Modern Orthodox Jewish female adolescents were 50% more likely to develop an eating disorder than other young women.
It’s important to note that it’s completely possible to eat healthily while maintaining a kosher diet, and there’s nothing about kosher restrictions that are specifically linked to developing patterns of disordered eating. When combined with other risk factors (such as anxiety, body dysmorphia, or depression), people who keep kosher may find that they have a reason to add additional rigidity to their diets, which may result in disordered eating patterns or diagnosed eating disorders.
What is a Kosher Diet?
A kosher diet has certain restrictions on what types of foods a person following the diet can eat. There are also restrictions on how foods need to be prepared in order to be considered kosher.
The kosher diet separates foods into three categories: meat, dairy, and pareve. The pareve category includes all foods that are not in the meat and dairy categories.
Here, we’ll explore each part of the kosher diet.
The kosher diet has certain rules around what types of meats a person may eat, as well as how they must be prepared. Jewish people who are following a kosher diet may not consume pork in any form.
No matter what type of animal a meat comes from, a person following a kosher diet cannot consume blood, brain tissue, nerves, or certain types of animal fats. Meats that are considered kosher must have been butchered by a shochet, a person who has been trained to follow Jewish rules during the slaughter and butchering process.
Jewish people who follow a kosher diet are permitted to eat most kinds of domesticated poultry, including geese, quail, dove, turkey, and chicken, as long as the animal is slaughtered appropriately. The rules for red meat are a bit trickier. The kosher diet rules state that a person can eat meat from animals that chew cud (digest the grasses that they eat more than once) and have split hooves. Sheep, cows, deer, and goats fit into this category. The kosher diet does not allow the consumption of carnivores.
The kosher diet only allows for the consumption of milk from kosher animals. Dairy and meat cannot be served on the same plate or consumed together. Yogurt and butter usually qualify as kosher. Cheese is not typically kosher, as most cheeses use an enzyme found in the soutaches of cows (rennet) to create cheese curds. Eggs are nearly always considered kosher and are permitted to be consumed with dairy products.
This catch-all category includes vegetables, grains, seafood, fruits, and nuts. While most foods in this category are considered kosher, there are some rules around seafood. In order for seafood to be considered kosher, it must have fins or scales. Shellfish are not permitted on a kosher diet.
There’s no doubt about it: following a kosher diet will provide all the calories, vitamins, and nutrients that a person needs to live a healthy lifestyle. That being said, people who are predisposed to eating disorders may find that keeping a kosher diet makes it hard to steer clear of disordered eating patterns. If you’re someone who is living with an eating disorder while keeping kosher and you’re ready to begin the recovery process, it’s key that you work with a facility that understands your dietary needs.
Seudat Mitzvah: A Challenge for Those with Disordered Eating Patterns
Some Jewish people who experience symptoms of disordered eating may struggle with the seudat mitzvah, a large festive meal that follows important life events. People who are uncomfortable with eating large meals may feel the need to restrict their caloric intake in the days or weeks leading up to the large meal or may feel the need to purge (through excessive exercise or vomiting) or restrict following the meal.
In addition to exhibiting disordered eating in the times before and after the seudat mitzvah, it’s common to experience mental health distress. People who are overly concerned with their eating, weight, and appearance may struggle with their self-esteem following a large meal, and may find that they struggle to enjoy cultural celebrations due to the stressors caused by their disordered eating patterns.
Modern Orthodox Judaism and Eating Disorders
Some Modern Orthodox Jews may find it especially tough to seek treatment for eating disorders. According to experts, eating disorders often go untreated due to a stigma surrounding mental health disorders in the Orthodox community.
The stigma surrounding mental health treatment and the dietary restrictions that come with a kosher diet can create circumstances that can increase the likelihood that people of the Modern Orthodox Jewish faith develop eating disorders. According to Jodi Krumholz, a dietitian at a Philadelphia eating disorder treatment center, “This rigidity can really be a perfect breeding ground for an eating disorder. If you’re already struggling with an eating disorder, and now you have all these foods that you can’t eat, it can be very difficult.”
Signs of Disordered Eating
While eating disorders can occur in any culture, it can be tough to figure out if you’re strictly adhering to dietary guidelines or if you’re exhibiting behaviors that are congruent with disordered eating. Some people who exhibit signs of disordered eating may progress to the point of having an eating disorder.
Signs of disordered eating may include:
- Preoccupation with food, including planning meals and snacks in advance beyond what is required for keeping a kosher diet
- Unnecessary disruptions in eating patterns, such as fasting when not required for religious reasons
- Changes in digestive and reproductive health
- Low energy and changes in sleep patterns
- Changes in body weight (may increase or decrease depending on specifics of disordered eating patterns)
- Refusal to eat certain foods (such as carbohydrates) even when they are prepared according to cultural or religious guidelines
If you or someone you love is showing signs of disordered eating, it’s important to remember that recovery is possible. Often, an eating disorder isn’t really about food — it’s about anxiety, depression, trauma, and an attempt to find something in life that can be controlled. A combination of therapy and medical treatment can increase the chances that a person who is suffering from an eating disorder can make a full recovery and live a happy, healthy life.
Keeping Kosher in Eating Disorder Recovery
There’s no doubt about it — keeping kosher during recovery can present challenges if you choose to go through the recovery process with a treatment team that isn’t familiar with your dietary needs. Lowering stress levels is a key part of your eating disorder treatment, and it’s important that you can rest assured that your cultural needs will be met as you begin the recovery process.
When you choose a recovery center that understands your dietary needs, you’ll be able to fully focus on healing, knowing that your religious standards are being respected by your treatment team. Knowledge of what it means to keep kosher can be especially important if some of your disordered eating revolves around staying true to your religion’s dietary restrictions. Someone who is knowledgeable in what it means to stay kosher can work with you to help you recognize what are true concerns about staying true to your religion while recovering — and what are concerns that are voiced by your eating disorder.
Your therapist and treatment team will also work with you to help you understand the connection between disordered eating and mental health. For people who grew up in a community where mental health was not addressed or discussed, this can be an educational process. Working with a treatment team that understands your community’s view of mental health can be key to getting the help that you need to make a full recovery.
How to Find the Right Kosher Eating Disorder Treatment Program for You
If you’ve recognized that you’re exhibiting signs of disordered eating, you’re doing the right thing by learning more about your treatment options. As a person who follows a kosher diet, knowing what to look for when you’re searching for the right eating disorder treatment center is key for your recovery.
No matter what diet you’re following, it’s key that you find a program that emphasizes mending your relationship with movement, food, eating, and self-esteem. Your dietary restrictions can be worked into your eating disorder treatment program, and you don’t necessarily need to choose an eating disorder treatment center that caters exclusively to people who follow a kosher diet (but your treatment team must be fully aware of your dietary restrictions).
If you follow the Jewish tradition of resting on the Shabbat, it’s important that your eating disorder treatment center does not schedule your therapy sessions on Saturdays. If you’re an Orthodox Jew who does not use electricity on Saturdays, your treatment center may work with you to help you perform all electricity-requiring tasks (like food preparation) on Friday, and then have someone bring you your food so that you do not need to use electricity to remove it from the fridge or heat it up.
Your eating disorder treatment center should work with you if you’re someone who fasts for religious reasons, helping you decide whether that practice can continue safely through your treatment. You may want to talk with your religious leader about your comfort level on bending certain religious expectations (such as eating especially large meals and fasting) as you go through the treatment process.
When you’re talking with eating disorder treatment centers and working to find the right fit for your needs, don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’ll want to look for a treatment center that’s willing to work with your dietary restrictions, and you should feel that your beliefs are respected.
Left untreated, eating disorders can be fatal, and reaching out for help can save your life. Contact our kosher eating disorder treatment center today to begin the process of restoring your health.