Things that make you go hmm: Religious participation and obesity

March 30th, 2011  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  11 Comments

An interesting conjunction of variables from the folks at Northwestern University’s School of Medicine: Religious participation is correlated with obesity.

Could it be the potato salad? Young adults who frequently attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age then are young adults with no religious involvement, according to new Northwestern Medicine research. This is the first longitudinal study to examine the development of obesity in people with various degrees of religious involvement.

“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,” said Matthew Feinstein, the study’s lead investigator… ”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.”

Full story

Now, notice that this doesn’t mean going to synagogue makes you fat. This isn’t causation. But again… hmmm.


  1. Foakleys says:

    March 30th, 2011at 8:52 am(#)

    Having grown up and still active in a church, this is just stating the painfully obvious. I will say that I DO NOT fall into this category as I am a very active, paleo loving, weight slinging, running, swimming cave man. But I see it with so many people, including my own parents (which REALLY sucks), and it’s infuriating.

    The part that also infuriates me, is that so many of these people do not think critically about what they are eating, and that we’ve evolved (oh yeah… I’m also an evolutionist, and unfortunately a closet one in my church at that) to not eat the garbage that they eat at these gatherings. When things do get bad, they just think it’s the way things are, and they pray and hope God will fix what they’ve done to themselves (though they “know” it’s not their fault, just their “fallen” bodies). Honestly, it’s so sad and frustrating for me.


  2. Anna says:

    March 30th, 2011at 9:23 am(#)

    I’m going to wager a guess that there’s a higher rate of religious participation in the Southeast and a higher rate of obesity in the Southeast and that the two may or may not be correlated.

    “I’ve noticed…” hardly counts as evidence, but I’ve noticed a high rate of religiosity (is that a word?) in recovering meth addicts.

  3. Beans says:

    March 30th, 2011at 11:30 am(#)

    I’m an academic who studies religion, and there’s a lot going on here. First of all, obesity and church participation are both correlated with education and socioeconomic status. These folks almost certainly controlled for that, but it’s worth keeping in mind. Second, I think that Foakleys has a point: a lot of churches can promote an attitude of disregarding the health of bodies. But there are also movements in a lot of churches to encourage healthy lifestyles as part of discipleship. So underneath this correlation, there’s a whole lot of variation. My church has a zumba class and a yoga class, and I think that’s not uncommon! Also, just looking around, there’s a lot of fit people in my church. People are affected by their networks more generally, regardless of the teachings about health in those networks: obesity works “contagiously” (to use a rather dangerous metaphor.)

    Another data point, for what it’s worth: I teach at a Christian university, and my students are all health fanatics. So are the profs. I don’t know if it’s related to the general high religiosity or it’s common to a lot of universities. But my students and colleagues are all at the gym all the time. There’s a crazy health culture here (in a good way.) Some people say that it comes from this “your body is a temple” idea.

    Just don’t want people to think that going to church makes you fat. Religiosity can also support healthy habits…

  4. Beans says:

    March 30th, 2011at 11:31 am(#)

    And I agree with Anna too–obesity and religiousity are both high in the South. So maybe this is picking up a regional effect.

  5. rhymeswithlibrarian says:

    March 30th, 2011at 1:59 pm(#)

    I was very involved in religion when I was young, and was fat (still am fat, not religious any more). My theory to explain this correlation is that overeating is one of the few vices that wasn’t condemned as sinful in the evangelical Christian culture. We couldn’t drink, do drugs, smoke, or have sex, but we could eat junk without worrying about our souls.

  6. Trevor says:

    March 30th, 2011at 5:57 pm(#)

    I’m in Canada, I do see a lot of obesity in the church as a regular church goer. The church I go to now, people tend to have more of an interest or acceptance to different diets/eating lifestyles. One of the first Paleo dieters I found was from church.

    Not in the church I attend now, but I have notice an attitude of the physical not being spiritual. Which contrasts the thoughts of “your body is a temple”. I’m onto the “your body is a temple” idea and I also struggle with emotional eating. For me, many church events with food are like an alcohol going into a bar. That’s for me personally.

    I have had thoughts of religious organizations supporting good health. To me it is only another spiritual investment for God.

  7. Sarah says:

    March 31st, 2011at 7:22 pm(#)

    Or it could be a little more simple – church-related eating is nearly all of the potluck variety. People going to potlucks generally take food that feeds the most amount of people for the least amount of money with the least leftovers. That’s cheap grains, cheap fat, and sugar. In SOME cultures and some religious traditions, cheaping out on the potluck offerings would be considered rude and disrespectful, but sadly north american christian isn’t one of them.

  8. Mistress Krista says:

    April 1st, 2011at 2:52 am(#)

    Folks who are part of religious communities: It seems to me that this would be a prime opportunity to gather around shared fitness activities. What could you do in your communities to get the ball rolling, so to speak?

  9. SaraT says:

    April 6th, 2011at 10:57 am(#)

    I think this logic is faulty… it’s like saying more people fail math tests on windy days.

    Anyway, to answer Krista’s recent question in the comments, my church is filled with paleo-eating Crossfitters, including our pastor and his wife. Maybe it’s because I’m in the Pacific Northwest, maybe it’s something else. We do a lot of fitness+church related things.

    God does command us to be a good steward of all we’ve been given, including our body. But, we’re all sinners, sometimes in this and sometimes in plenty of other ways…

  10. Anna C says:

    April 11th, 2011at 4:50 am(#)

    In traditional parishes of the Orthodox church, the expectation is that one stands for nearly the entire service. One also makes deep bows (or prostrations, like an Islamic kneeling bow), can move around within reasonable limits, and sing. The average Sunday service is 1.5 hours, major holy days, can go almost three! You can chalk up 5 hours of low-medium METs quite easily by just going to church services.

    On the flipside of the paleo peeps, the Orthodox are vegan/vegetarian/pescatarian about 1/3 of the year. This is not necessarily a “health-promoting” regime but it does lend itself to that traditional Mediterrainian long-life ideal.

  11. E. Alexander says:

    May 8th, 2011at 8:52 am(#)

    I’m frustrated with the current Christian culture and its general lack of health-conciousness. I am part of a wonderful Christian organization/church whereby the members are for the most part grossly obese. I don’t go to their potluck Bible Study because the food is the worst I’ve ever seen: white pasta, french bread, potatoe salad with mayo… and this is at a single meal! I am very health consious, maybe a little on the extreme and I work out. Yes, I could bring my own dinner to the events but I don’t want to stick out like a soar thumb. One day, one of these precious women of God, who is at least 75 lbs. overweight, commented on a congregant who wasn’t a “pure” Christian because she smoked. And she’s saying this while eating a piece of chocolate cake! So why is the smoker not pure and the obese woman eating the piece of cake OK? It’s the height of hypocracy and yet is rampant in the church today. And these people would probably never be classified as having an eating disorder, either. How does this make any sense? I’m confused…

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