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Study finds link between religion, obesity

Published: Wednesday, April 6 2011 10:00 a.m. MDT

Religion may be fattening.

At least that seems to be the report from Northwestern University: "Young adults who frequently attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age as young adults with no religious involvement, according to new Northwestern Medicine research."

The Religion News Service (RNS) wondered if a new commandment was in order: "Thou shalt not serve pizza?"

A broader study in 1998 by Purdue University found similar results: "Religious people are more likely to be overweight than are nonreligious people."

Studies on Mormons have also weighed in on the question. A Deseret News article from 2006 reported that in 1996, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were found to be 5.7 pounds heavier on average and 34 percent more likely to be obese. By 2006 things had improved a little with LDS church members weighing only 4.6 pounds more than people in other religions.

But why do the faithful become flabby?

"For years, the church has focused on the 'don'ts' — don't smoke, don't drink, and all the other things that you shouldn't do that are heavily enforced," said BYU professor Steve Aldana in 2006 about the study on Mormons. "And now finally here's a 'do' — go ahead and do eat — and boy, do we eat."

"We don't know why frequent religious participation is associated with development of obesity," Matthew Feinstein told Northwestern University's News Center. Feinstein is the study's lead investigator and a fourth-year student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "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."

In the 1998 Purdue study, Sociology Professor Kenneth Ferraro said, "The religious lifestyle has long been considered a healthy one, with its constraints on sexual promiscuity, alcohol and tobacco use. … However, overeating may be one sin that pastors and priests regularly overlook. And as such, many firm believers may have not-so-firm bodies."

Ferraro found a balancing effect, as it were, between the normal dissatisfaction that an overweight person might feel (and that presumably would lead them to want to diet) and the well-being religious people feel. In other words, religious people feel so good about themselves that they don't notice the fat as much.

A short article in Psychology Today in 2007 said that "Religious faith … promotes acceptance of one's body. A Cornell University study finds that religious adherents are less likely to perceive themselves as overweight."

So, if religious people may, for various reasons, be more likely to become overweight without noticing it or without feeling as bad about it, what is being done to reverse the trend?

First Lady Michelle Obama took her "Let's Move" childhood obesity initiative to churches beginning last November, according to an RNS story, and she celebrated the program's first anniversary in February at an evangelical church near Atlanta.

Ironically, some religious people are opposed to the federal government's efforts to reduce childhood obesity. The RNS article about Michelle Obama reported that, according to a Pew Research Center survey, 56 percent of white evangelicals said the government should not play a significant role in reducing childhood obesity compared to 57 percent of Americans in general who favored such action.

Pew Research also reported that "the public does not view the fight against obesity as a major policy priority for the president and Congress. In Pew Research's annual policy priorities poll in January, just 19 percent rated dealing with obesity in this country as a top priority."

The Northwestern University study did have a silver lining, according to USA Today: "The researchers caution that this doesn't mean religious Gen-Xers have worse overall health. Previous studies have shown religious people tend to live longer than those who aren't religious in part because they tend to smoke less. Other studies find churchgoers are happier because they have a network of close friendships through shared beliefs and activities."

Finestein said, "Here's an opportunity for religious organizations to initiate programs to help their congregations live even longer."

Email: mdegroote@desnews.com

Ttwitter: twitter.com/degroote

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