OREM — Utah's religious divide appears to have a physical as well as spiritual side — LDS Church members on average weigh 4.6 pounds more than their counterparts in other religions.

A recently completed study shows that Utah, and particularly its LDS population — for many years seen as a bastion of health in a nation where fitness is on a steady decline — is slipping, especially around the waistline.

The study, involving a cross section of Utah adults from different religions over a nine-year period, also found that LDS Church members are 14 percent more likely (18 percent for males, 9 percent for females) to be obese than their non-LDS counterparts.

The study was compiled by BYU health science professor Ray Merrill, who gathered the data from figures obtained in 1996, 2001 and 2003-2004 by the Utah Health Status Survey.

The most recent numbers, while still high, showed there has been some improvement since 1996, when LDS adults were found to be 5.7 pounds heavier on average and 34 percent more likely to be obese.

Merrill's study suggests LDS Church members may be using excessive eating as a substitute for other socially accepted sources of enjoyment, like smoking and drinking, that the church prohibits.

"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 Steve Aldana, a BYU professor who presented some of the study's findings at a recent heart conference at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center.

"There has been little emphasis on the do's — eat good foods and exercise," he continued. "In the church, we have a lot of don'ts, and now finally here's a do — go ahead and do eat — and boy, do we eat."

Aldana, a health and human performance professor at BYU, wants to bridge the gap between teaching Americans about healthy habits and actually adopting them. Last year, he penned "The Culprit & The Cure," a book intended to help people make that transition.

The weight problem for LDS Church members is part of a growing trend both in the state and in the nation as a whole, Aldana said.

"It's been a slow and gradual trend, and now when we stop and take a look, this is where we are . . . this has crept up on us, and now it's dramatic," he said.

Aldana said the LDS Church is one of the few organizations actively working on the problem by instituting a wellness program for its employees and calling wellness missionaries. But, he said, there is much more to be done.

"You still aren't hearing this over the pulpit," he said.

A spokesman for the LDS Church declined comment.

Aldana said the state has done a good job researching and compiling data that has been useful in studies like Merrill's. But it has done little to reverse the trend.

"Daily physical education is not required at any level in Utah," he said. "We don't even have PE teachers, we have PE specialists who get paid $7 an hour to do something with these kids. And we're lacking good parks and trails systems in many of our cities."

The concern is not just for obesity, he said, but also for people who may not be overweight but put themselves at risk for cardiovascular disease and other health issues.

E-mail: jtwitchell@desnews.com