Is Church Making You Fat? Research Suggests the Religious Are More Likely to Put on Pounds

Research seems to suggest that religious people have a greater chance of becoming obese by middle age, and the creator of "The Daniel Plan" health initiative says all of those potlucks and church banquets may be sending Christians to heaven "too early."

Prominent psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen thinks churches should not only be places of spiritual support, but that houses of worship should also cater to parishioners' overall well-being, including their health.

Amen, who studies the connection between physical and emotional health, recently teamed up with Saddleback Church to carry out The Daniel Plan, a movement that started with Saddleback pastor Rick Warren and seeks to get believers to glorify God through the way they eat, move and think overall.

With over 15,000 people involved, the Daniel Plan is a 52-week plan to get the church healthy. Collectively, Saddleback's "Daniel Plan" participants have lost 250,000.

Partakers can log into, a full-fledged online community where Saddleback members can track their weight loss progress, sign up for fitness classes and get nutrition advice.

But how did this initiative come about?

During the summer of 2010, Amen became irritated when he attended a church event with his family and found himself outraged at the hundreds of donuts on the premises and the many grills firing up fatty breakfast meats like sausage and bacon.

When he overheard the church pastor discussing an ice cream festival that was held the night before, Amen knew he needed to do something.

In a passionate blog post for The Huffington Post, Amen recalls sending his wife a text that read, "Go to church…get donuts…bacon…. sausage…hot dogs…ice cream. They have no idea they are sending people to heaven EARLY!"

"I have realized many schools, businesses, hospitals, and churches could do a much better job of helping people they serve," wrote Amen, who is also the author of the best-selling book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.

Amen added, "We have the potential to be powerful positive influences on our health and connect us with the kind of support network that leads to success. We have to do more to make that happen."

According to Amen, church was the place to start. He recalls praying that God would use him to help change places of worship. The house of God, no matter what religion, should not be a place that fosters illness.

Named after the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament who refused to eat the the Babylonian king's food, "The Daniel Plan" utilizes such health tools as keeping a food journal, drinking water throughout the day, getting proper sleep, getting high quality calories and regular exercise.

Saddleback pastor Steve Komanapalli half-jokingly told Amen, who approached him about unhealthy options at church, "If you think this is bad, I run a Saturday morning men's Bible study group and give the guys barbecued ribs as a reward for learning Bible versus."

It is not just viewing expanding waistlines of church leaders and members that got Dr. Amen wanting to change the health of churchgoers. Research also played a apart.

According to findings from the Amen Clinic, brain health is highly linked to physical healthy. When a person's weight went up, the function in the prefrontal cortex, the most human, thoughtful part of the brain went down, according to research.

In addition to the Amen Clinic's findings, other recent research from Northwestern University reveals that people who frequently attend religious services are significantly more likely to become obese by the time they reach middle age.

Jeff Levin, director of Baylor University's Program on Religion and Population Health, said one possibility for Northwestern University's finding is that those who attend services along with activities such as Bible study and prayer groups could be "just sitting around passively instead of being outside engaging in physical activity."

Potlucks, ice cream socials, pancake breakfasts, spaghetti dinners and donuts are not good for the body, brain or soul.

Amen wrote, "We've got to get creative with alternative social activities and healthier food in our churches."

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