Firm Faith, Fat Body? Study Finds High Rate of Obesity among Religious

A surprising new link between obesity and regular religious participation has been discovered amongst God-fearing believers.

The study conducted by author Matthew J. Feinstein found that young adults who regularly attended religious services were fifty percent more likely to become obese by the time they reached middle age.

"We had previously found that those with high religious involvement were more likely to be obese," stated the lead investigator. "But we wanted to follow people over time to make sure that people who are religious are more likely to become obese, not that people who weigh more are more likely to turn to religion."

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As the first longitudinal study to examine the development of obesity in the religious, researchers tracked 2,433 men and women who were between the ages of 20 to 32 for eighteen years. Forty-one percent of the participants were black and mostly women.

Even after controlling factors such as age, race, sex, education, income, and baseline body mass index, 32 percent of those who attended services the most became obese by middle age, while 22 percent of those who attended services the least became obese.

Attending a religious function at least once a week was defined as high frequency of religious participation.

Feinstein, a Northwestern University medical student, remarked that the study highlighted a particular group that appeared to be at greater risk of becoming obese and remaining obese. Obesity is defined as having a BMI of 30 or higher.

"We don't know why frequent religious participation is associated with development of obesity, but the upshot is these findings highlight a group that could benefit from targeted efforts at obesity prevention," shared Feinstein.

Senior study author Donald Lloyd-Jones, M.D., chair of preventative medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine expressed, "Obesity is the major epidemic that is facing the U.S. population right now. We know that people with obesity have substantial risks for developing diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer, and of dying much younger.

"So, we need to use all of the tools at our disposal to identify groups at risk and to provide education and support to prevent the development of obesity in the first place," Lloyd-Jones added.

Cautioning that their findings did not mean frequent religious involvement made people more obese or that the religious had overall worse health statuses compared to the non-religious, the authors highlighted that previous studies have also shown that religious people tend to live longer because they tended to smoke less.

Other studies have indicated that churchgoers were happier, had an increased lifespan, and avoided unhealthy behaviors like smoking and drinking.

So aside from these positive health markers, what was the explanation for the extra pounds?

Feinstein believed that one possible explanation could be that some religious gatherings centered on unhealthy or high-calorie meals.

"It's possible that getting together once a week and associating good works and happiness with eating unhealthy foods could lead to the development of habits that are associated with greater body weight and obesity."

Kenneth Ferraro, who conducted a similar study in 1998, postulated that in America, gluttony was a more acceptable vice to indulge in, according to the Purdue study.

"The religious lifestyle has long been considered a healthy one, with its constraints on sexual promiscuity, alcohol and tobacco use," noted Ferraro. "However, overeating may be one sin that pastors and priests regularly overlook. And as such, many firm believers may have not-so-firm bodies.

"American churches are virtually silent on excess body weight, despite a Biblical dictate for moderation in all things," the sociology professor observed. "In the Book of Proverbs, gluttony is listed with drunkenness as a sign of moral weakness, but few religious groups have any proscriptions against overeating."

Why can we talk about all matters of sin in the church, but we don't talk about the sin of not taking care of the temples that God has given us, commented Pastor Steve Willis of First Baptist Church in West Virginia.

Reported by the Baptist Standard, the pastor encouraged believers to consider exercise and eating healthy as an act of worship. "It matters what Christians do to their bodies. Our bodies belong to God."

Featured on British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's reality show, Food Revolution – which promotes good health and proper nutrition – First Baptist in Kenova learned how to cook healthy, nutritious meals not only for their fellowship gatherings but also for use within their own homes.

Highland Colony Pastor Jay Richardson also addressed the issue of obesity within the church through his current sermon series and weight loss program based on Pastor Steve Reynolds book entitled "Bod 4 God," according to Hattiesburg American.

"I think that somehow our health and eating all we want – we have kind of divorced that from our spiritual lives," told Richardson to HA. "Steve has some great quotes in his book about how he always depended on the Holy Spirit when he stood up to preach, but that never entered his mind when he sat down to eat or went to the grocery store.

"We want to honor God with our bodies. They are not for our gratification; they are for God's glory," the Highland pastor shared.

Feinstein noted that this study presented an opportunity for religious organizations to initiate programs to help their congregations live even longer.

"The organizations already have groups of people getting together and infrastructures in place that could be leveraged to initiate programs that prevent people from becoming obese and treat existing obesity," he said. "Church-based intervention programs have shown promising results."

Presented at the American Heart Association's Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism/Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention Scientific Sessions 2011 in Atlanta, Ga., the study is challenging believers to start their quest to reclaim their bodies, not just their minds and hearts, for God.

Feinstein's study drew on populations from Alabama, Minnesota, Illinois, and California. Alabama participants, having large populations of overweight and highly religious participants, were thought to have possibly skewed the association. Location was not a factor in the study.

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