Childhood Obesity in Jewish Communities

February 15, 2007

by Rochelle Davis, HSC Executive Director

As this article from Chicago Jewish News demonstrates, Orthodox Jewish communities are experiencing high rates of childhood obesity. Pauline Dubkin Yearwood writes:

According to the Jewish Community Health Survey of West Rogers Park and Peterson Park, 31 percent of adults — nearly a third — were overweight, with an additional 25 percent who were obese.

The news about children was even more disturbing. A majority — 54 percent-of children ages 2 to 12 were overweight, with an additional 26 percent defined as obese. (The definitions of overweight and obesity were based on the commonly accepted Body Mass Index or BMI.)

“A Jewish child living in this community is approximately twice as likely to be obese as the average American child,” the study concluded. At a time when obesity among the general population, and especially childhood obesity, is drawing headlines, that finding clearly signals an unwelcome trend.

A recent study [PDF] by the Sinai Urban Health Institute found that 80 percent of the children in the Orthodox communities of Peterson Park and West Rogers Park are overweight or obese, much higher than the national average.

According to the article, community members don’t dispute the findings. “Aside from the problems of unhealthy food and a sedentary lifestyle that beset all segments of American society,” writes Yearwood, “they cite problems specific to the Orthodox community: a tradition of huge Shabbos and holiday meals, a busy lifestyle that often precludes taking time to prepare healthy low-fat, low-calorie meals; and, for children in Jewish day schools, a long school day that doesn’t allow much time for sports or other physical activities.”

While each community, whether Orthodox Jewish — or Latino or African-American (other communities with high rates of childhood obesity) — needs to examine community-specific conditions that might contribute to this problem, we can not forget that government policies about agriculture, education and urban development must be re-examined if we, as a society are going to be successful in addressing the obesity epidemic.