Stress eating in response to COVID? Religious belief may help

A study shows that COVID stress related weight gain was not present among deeply religious people. There are multiple reasons for this result. Analysis.

Dr. Steven Pirutinsky ,

(illustrative) Matzah ball soup
(illustrative) Matzah ball soup
iStock

There is no denying it; the past year has been stressful. For months people have bemoaned stress-related weight gain. A new study indicating that many people gained two pounds a month shows they were right to be concerned. Religion, however, can offer protection against stress-related weight gain.

This will come as welcome news as we survey our Passover pantries, filled with carbohydrate-dense matzah and macaroons, and set our seder tables. Last spring, I surveyed 983 Orthodox Jews and found that, while stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic correlated with weight gain in the general population, this trend was not present among deeply religious people. Among those surveyed, people who were more religious were less likely to report that they gained weight during the first months of the pandemic compared to those who were less religious.

There are multiple reasons for this. First, religion improves people’s psychological well-being by offering comfort, support and hope, and this may be most apparent in times of stress. It provides a spiritual cushion that softens the blow of difficult times, making it easier for people to avoid stress eating and to maintain their normal physical activities.

Second, Orthodox Jews, who follow religious laws and customs, enjoy the benefits of filling everyday life with a sense of purpose and meaning. Adherence to faith and halakha requires self-control and self-regulation. This may also increase people’s ability to control diet and weight gain.

Third, engaging in religious activity shifts people’s attention away from eating and toward meaningful activities. Attending shul, studying and observing Shabbat each week are time consuming and may be beneficial in managing stress.

While food certainly plays a large role in our Pesach experience, the seder is all about mindful eating. We remember the bitterness our ancestors experienced in Egypt while eating maror, the bitter herbs, and discuss the symbolism of matza, the bread of affliction. Throughout the meal, we pause to think about what we are eating and why, and to feel grateful for our freedom.

As the data shows, mindfulness and self-regulation limit weight gain. Our seder epitomizes this experience. Our traditions make us strong.

Dr. Steven Pirutinsky is a professor at Touro College’s Graduate School of Social Work. He studies the intersections between spirituality, religion, culture, mental health, and well-being, particularly within the Orthodox Jewish community. To learn more about Touro’s Graduate School of Social Work visit gssw.touro.edu



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