Do Orthodox Jews Have An Obesity Problem?
When I started my conversion process seven years ago, I immediately noticed something: Jews love food.
I grew up in a white, middle-class American family. My background is a mishmash of English, Irish, German, and Scottish. In my home, food was never emphasized. It was more like something you simply needed to get by.
At the first Shabbat dinner I attended at the Chabad of North Brooklyn, I felt like I was Audrey Griswold in “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.” The food just kept on coming. There was challah, all different types of salads, hummus, chicken soup, kugel, baked chicken, green beans, and cake for dessert.
My now-husband Danny Lobell and I began going to Shabbat dinner regularly, whether it was at the Chabad or his parents’ house. And then a few years in, we added Shabbat lunch and sometimes a Seudah Shlishit meal, and all the holidays. As I became frum, I also became overweight.
In just a span of five years, I had jumped from 165 pounds to 209 pounds at my wedding in 2015.
Not only was I overweight, but I also had high blood pressure and was pre-diabetic. If I didn’t lose some weight soon, I was going to be on a dangerous path.
I’d try to lose weight. I joined Weight Watchers for a little bit but thought it was ridiculous that I could have diet soda. Plus, who can track every little thing they eat? This was especially tough on Shabbat, when we aren’t allowed to use our phones.
I would start every week as the typical dieter: Monday, I’d be good. Tuesday through Friday I’d be good. By Friday, I was usually a few pounds lighter. Then, all bets were off on Shabbat. I had challah bread, appetizers, entrees, desserts, cholent and other goodies at Kiddush, then another lunch, then a Seudah Shlishit meal, then the traditional cheese pizza on Saturday night, of course.
When I’d weigh myself the following Monday, I was back to square one. This just kept on happening. I was in what felt like an unbreakable negative cycle.
I felt so trapped. I looked around at Shabbat tables and they were usually full of unhealthy items. The kosher restaurants in my neighborhood in Los Angeles, and usually anywhere are mostly serving junk food.
I can get the best burger here and awesome Chinese food and an authentic Mexican burrito and really good pizza and great bagels and a lovely steak but are any of these options healthy? Nope. Is there a single kosher restaurant in my community that only focuses on plant-based, organic, healthy food? Not at all. This restaurant would not survive here.
Now, I can’t blame my being overweight entirely on my becoming a frum Jew. Seven years ago, I also got on Lexapro for a few months, and that caused me to eat more. My whole life I’ve been slightly overweight. I’ve been using food to fill some hole in my soul since I was a little kid. Becoming a frum Jew did not cause the problem, but it did exacerbate it.
Looking around, I noticed that a lot of my fellow Orthodox peers are also overweight. Many of us are struggling with it.
I’ve been curious for years if the Orthodox lifestyle simply makes you fatter. And also, what exactly is the problem?
Maybe it’s because we have tons of food on holidays and Shabbat every single week. Maybe it’s because we have lots of kids and it’s hard to lose the baby weight or eat healthy when you’re sleep deprived and have no time. Maybe there isn’t enough education in our community about healthy eating. Maybe we eat because we, on the whole, do not do drugs or excessively drink, so this is our one guilty pleasure.
But it might not be an exclusively Orthodox Jewish problem at all. Maybe our obesity rates are the same as typical Americans.
So I asked two experts I know, Mia Adler Ozair, who is an Orthodox Jew, a certified health coach, and a mother of nine, and Kayla Goldwag, another Orthodox Jew and personal trainer in Los Angeles, what their perspective was on the obesity issue.
Goldwag, who mostly serves Orthodox Jewish women, said it is hard to know whether the Orthodox are more out of shape than the average American, who is obese, overweight, and/or sedentary.
However, what Goldwag has noticed is that “My Orthodox clients are less educated about fitness in terms of how to [exercise] correctly, how often they should be [exercising], and the value of exercise, movement, and self-care to their overall health.”
Goldwag said that many of her clients come to her never having performed a proper sit up, push up, or squat in their lives, and do not know the difference between resistance training and cardio exercise.
“I often encounter Orthodox Jews who view exercise as a way to punish their body into submission or smallness rather than a way to celebrate, care for, and love their body and the many ways their Creator enabled it to move and respond and adapt,” she said.
And, unfortunately, Goldwag has noticed that “With all of the demands on our time we tend to put self-care at the bottom of the list. With mounting tuition bills and holiday time constraints, jobs, husbands, [and] learning, it’s not easy to fit it in. We often think, ‘I should’ get in some exercise, rather than ‘I must’ exercise.”
Adler Ozair said that in her line of her work, she’s seen that everyone, no matter his or her background, struggles to stay in shape. But she also acknowledged that that may be harder for her Orthodox clients because “what the Orthodox community faces is above and beyond the norm, [like] managing Shabbat and chaggim, and the level of food involvement that we must navigate on a regular basis.”
She continued, “I’ve seen it a thousand times that people drop weight during the week only to gain it all back on Shabbat and need to start over again. This works when you are in the maintenance phase and you can eat a little extra once or twice a week but it is a complete disaster for any serious weight loss.”
That is certainly an issue for Goldwag and her husband, who try to work out as often as possible. She said their workout plans are interrupted by the holidays “and it takes a while to move past the break-in period and re-establish our routines. Do it anyway. That difficult break-through period of feeling sore and tired and not like doing it lasts about 10 workouts. Push through that because it’s so worth it. It gets easier after that.”
Both Goldwag and Adler Ozair argued that staying fit is a mitzvah. “Model good self-care for our children,” said Goldwag. “Just as you want your children to see you make brochos or learn Torah, brush their teeth for hygiene and their health, [and] not yell just because they are angry or frustrated, you want them to know that Jews take care of their bodies by moving them daily.”
Adler Ozair said that the Orthodox Jewish community has to be prepared to learn about what a healthy lifestyle constitutes. “It all starts with education and awareness that our physical bodies are the homes to our souls and that they are just as important to care for as it is to study Torah and do mitzvot. Rambam has incredible texts on this matter and, after all, caring for our bodies is caring for one of the greatest gifts that God has given us.”
For me, the solution has been completely relearning how to eat.
I read about intuitive eating. My husband and I have been seeing an LA-based dietician, Mascha Davis, for over a year. I dropped 14 pounds during the first six months and gained a few back, but I’m not discouraged. I work out with a trainer once a week and try to go to the gym at least four times a week. I cut out late night eating and don’t starve myself, ever.
Also, instead of focusing on weight loss, which usually leads to failure because I always think it’s not happening fast enough, I focus on how I feel and look.
I check in with myself and ask: Does my stomach hurt? Is my skin clear and shiny? Do I have bags under my eyes? Do I feel fit? Am I able to walk up stairs without being out of breath? Do my clothes fit? Am I hungry? Am I full?
Shabbat continues to be a challenge, but I do well every other day of the week, and I’m even doing better when Friday and Saturday roll around. I eat before dinner so I don’t fill up on challah. I drink plenty of water. I try not to have a starvation mentality where I think, “I must try everything or else I’ll never be able to have it again!” That is never the case.
Even if I improve only slightly from one Shabbat or one holiday to another that is still progress. As long as I’m pushing forward and always staying positive, I know I’ll live a long, healthy, and happy life. And that is precisely what God wants for me.