Many religions condemn overeating and gluttony. Yet young adults who frequently attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to turn into obese middle-agers than those with no religious involvement, according to research from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
The study tracked 2,433 men and women over 18 years and provides much stronger evidence that religion may be a predictor of who becomes obese. Differences in age, race, sex, education, income and baseline body mass index couldn't explain the weight gain. But like previous research, it doesn't shed light on why the effect is seen.
The researchers acknowledge there are many potential explanations for the association between religious participation and obesity. One may simply be that religious gatherings often may center around eating traditional, high-calorie comfort foods, said Matthew Feinstein, the study's lead investigator and a fourth-year student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Or perhaps, young adults with a propensity toward weight problems find more acceptance and less judgment in church groups. Maybe religious faith gives some sort of physiological high similar to physical exercise, but without the burn off of calories. Or maybe, as Purdue University sociologist Ken Ferraro has suggested with his previous work, "churches are a feeding ground for gluttony and obesity."
Ferraro, who was not involved in the study, called it "intriguing and important." But he wondered whether the observed effect was only seen in women. And he also questioned the role of marriage, since the study focuses on the time period when many Americans get hitched.
"We know that weight gain is common after marriage and that marriage is highly valued in most religious groups," he said. "Thus, one wonders if the results could be partially due to religious people being more likely to get married earlier and then gaining weight."
Yvonne Bennett, a Chicago-area fitness instructor, said the study results likely apply to some churches but not all. At her own church, Trinity Baptist Community Church International in Crystal Lake, Bennett started a fitness ministry to focus on healthy eating pracatices and exercise.
"As a result the fellowship at my church has become healthier," she said. "We now see lots of salads, fruits, veggies and water being served." Bennett added that "many churches are adapting these practices by adding exercise classes to their morning time and mid- week activities."
Baptist women are at highest risk of obesity, followed by Fundamental Protestants, according to Ferraro's work. Though the South, home to many Baptists, is known for its less healthy eating patterns, Baptist women were still more likely to be obese when the researchers controlled for residency.
Men, however, were less likely to be obese if they sought counseling and comforting through religious sources.
"The trend could be related to the strong emphasis for Baptists to avoid alcohol and tobacco, and as a result, many of them indulge in overeating, instead," Ferraro said.
In Feinstein's study, however, the authors still found a strong and significant association between religious participation and obesity after adjusting for smoking, which suggests that differences in smoking among more and less religious individuals does not explain their differing incidences of obesity.
Feinstein also stressed that while many people may be surprised to learn that those who are more religious may be more likely to become and remain obese, it's important to keep the findings in context.
Previous reserach has demonstrated that "religious people tend to live longer, smoke less, and have better mental health, and our study does nothing to challenge that," he said. "The real value of our study, then, is to highlight one health area in which there is room for improvement in the religious community, and which could potentially benefit from targeted obesity prevention and treatment initiatives."
Still, it's a tough crowd to win over. As my colleague Tribune religion writer Manya Brachear pointed on The Seeker, First Lady Michelle Obama introduced the "Let's Move" public health initiative to congregations last November. But "according to a Pew Research survey, 56 percent of white evangelicals frown on the government’s involvement in reducing childhood obesity."
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