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The haredi community, with on average seven children per family, is characterized by poor diet, high rates of obesity, anemia and diabetes. In order to prevent the development of chronic diseases later in life, it is essential to assist parents in providing their children with healthier nutrition.

A new study of dietary habits in the haredi 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.

Twenty key leaders from the Gur and Chabad haredi communities in Israel – including rabbis, rabbis' wives, parents, and educational and health professionals -- were interviewed in-depth for the study, published in the journal Appetite.

The study was conducted by Chagit Peles, a PhD candidate at the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine of Bar-Ilan University, PhD supervisors Prof. (Emeritus) Mary Rudolf and Dr. Miriam Bentwich from the Azrieli Faculty of Bar-Ilan University, and Dr. Netalie Shloim from the School of Healthcare at Leeds University in northern England.

The study revealed 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 healthier meals, boys from a relatively young age eat most of their meals in school or yeshivas, where nutritional quality is especially poor. As such, the research suggests that greater attention be focused on building a healthy nutritional environment and promoting healthy eating habits within these school settings.

Interviewees indicated that pitching efforts to increase healthy eating are not likely to resonate within the haredi community 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 healthily if they are convinced 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 healthy eating as a way to prevent chronic illness later in life. In some haredi communities, consideration of health 50-60 years ahead is unlikely to be meaningful. A new emphasis on the benefits that healthy eating has on learning may well prove more effective.

In all sectors of Israeli society children bring their own food to school. This is a red light for poor nutrition nationwide. Haredi mothers are under great pressure in the morning to ensure that their many children reach school on time. As such, the food children bring to school is generally nutritionally poor, containing neither vegetables nor fruit. In some schools a mid-morning snack may be provided, but it is comprised principally of white bread and a high sugar spread. Educating school staff to encourage health-minded behavior is essential, as is the removal of vending machines, which provide unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks.

Traditional foods, including sweet and fatty foods, are considered ‘sacrosanct’ on the Sabbath.

Therefore, attempts to prescribe changes in Shabbat eating customs must be addressed with awareness of, and strict sensitivity to, cultural beliefs. Cholent and sweet challah bread can be limited while increasing consumption of vegetables. Sweet beverages can be replaced by soda water, and snacks containing natural sugars that are healthy, tasty and quick to make should be encouraged.

Lack of awareness due to restricted media access, cost of food, and preparation time of kosher food 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.

Just like young couples receive preparatory lessons about married life and building a home together before they wed, Bar-Ilan University PhD candidate Chagit Peles says these lessons should also include information about healthy eating, buying healthier foods, and healthy cooking, in order 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 haredi families comprise a significant component of society, especially regarding the high number of young children. Strong haredi communities in other countries, such as the US, UK 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," says Prof. Mary Rudolf, of Bar-Ilan University's Azrieli Faculty of Medicine.

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