Could church make you fat?

In an Associated Press story in 2004, I let my creative juices flow this way:

In the Bible Belt, fried-chicken fellowships and potbellied pastors are as much a part of the culture as NASCAR races and sentences that start with “Y’all.” Churches traditionally have not worried much about waistlines.

I don’t know if that paragraph would win a GetReligion seal of approval, but I enjoyed writing it at the time.

Fast-forward seven years, and the size of religious people’s bellies is again making news. And like yours truly, most media are having some fun with the story.

The headline at MSNBC.com:

Praise the lard? Religion linked to obesity in young adults

Time magazine’s take:

Why Going to Church Can Make You Fat

Over at USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman describes it this way:

Uh-oh. All those pizzas luring young adults to church activities may have unintended consequences. The devil may be in the pepperoni: Folks who stick with church for years often wind up fatter than their unchurched peers.

The news peg drawing reporters’ interest? A study by Northwestern University medical researchers. A Northwestern news release provides the basic facts and quotes used in most of the news reports:

CHICAGO — Could it be the potato salad? 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. 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 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.”

Previous Northwestern Medicine research established a correlation between religious involvement and obesity in middle-age and older adults at a single point in time. By tracking participants’ weight gain over time, the new study makes it clear that normal weight younger adults with high religious involvement became obese, rather than obese adults becoming more religious.

Later, the news release notes:

The authors caution that their findings should only be taken to mean people with frequent religious involvement are more likely to become obese, and not that they have worse overall health status than those who are non-religious. In fact, previous studies have shown religious people tend to live longer than those who aren’t religious in part because they tend to smoke less.

Most of the news reports on the study are about as thin as religious people are, presumably, fat. CBS News, Religion News Service and the Los Angeles Times all basically rewrote the news release.

I was pleased, however, to find a few cases where news organizations dug deeper, although obvious questions — the religious breakdown of those studied, the specific religious activities involved, just to name a few — remain mostly unanswered.

One of my first questions was this: Could it be that religious people marry younger and, thus, start putting on more pounds because of that?

The Chicago Tribune addressed this question:

(Purdue University sociologist Ken) 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.”

ABC News provided, by far, the most insightful coverage that I found. Even the lede managed to nail the bigger picture:

Americans who are religious are more likely to be happy, healthy … and hefty?

ABC also delved into the spiritual and theological realms.

On the spiritual side:

“Another possible explanation is that religion encourages a focus on the afterlife and might thus distract a bit from focusing on the health goals in this one,” said Katz.

Concerning theology:

Sociologists Krista Cline and Kenneth Ferraro noted that, in America, religions tend to focus on constraining sins such as smoking, drinking and promiscuity, while gluttony became a more acceptable vice to indulge in.

Dr. Keith Ayoob, director of the Nutrition Clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, added that amid the atmosphere of restriction, food can also become “a legitimate, socially acceptable drug.”

ABC even questioned whether the study’s failure to account for location might be an issue:

The southeastern part of the United States, often referred to as the Bible Belt, has the highest concentration of religious populations and also contains some of the states with the highest prevalence of obesity.

While Feinstein’s study draws on populations from around the country (Alabama, Minnesota, Illinois, and California), researchers did not control for location and, hence, it may have been that the Alabama participants skewed the association by having large populations of overweight and highly religious participants.

Not the best writing in the world, but ABC presents a fuller — fatter, if you will — account than other reports and raises intriguing questions.

MSNBC also showed some initiative in interviewing real religious people. (No, I don’t think the reporter asked their weight.) This was my favorite section of that report:

Jessica Ward, a 30-year-old notary public who regularly attends the Kent Lutheran Church, in Kent, Wash., says potlucks can definitely be filled with delicious temptation.

“You don’t see a lot of fresh stuff at most church potlucks,” she says. “You’ll see spaghetti and Swedish meatballs and three or four varieties of potato casserole or green bean casserole or Jell-O salads. Plus heaps and piles of desserts — lots of pies and cakes and cookies.”

Hmmmmm, that sounds like a lot of church potlucks that I’ve attended. I don’t know why, but suddenly, I’m hungry. Food and fellowship, anyone?

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://blogs.chron.com/believeitornot Kate Shellnutt

    Dr. Feinstein’ research was also used to find similar conclusions a year ago, when the journal Circulation published that religiosity did not make you healthier because it was correlated with obesity. The story from Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/02/08/us-religious-healthier-idUSTRE6174DN20100208.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat Nicole Neroulias

    Can I get points for my headline? (I had fun writing it, at least!)

    Good point about the possible marriage link. There are lots of potential contributing/overriding factors in this study — I blogged about the geographic and socioeconomic angle — and unfortunately, journalists usually don’t have the time, space or statistical background to second- and third-guess poll results.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat Nicole Neroulias

    Whoops — I meant research results, not “poll” results, in this case.

  • Bill

    said Matthew Feinstein, the study’s lead investigator and a fourth-year student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

    A fourth year med student is the lead researcher? Is he a doctor yet? Any coverage of his methodology?

  • joye

    Once again, I’m thinking that all news media buildings need big signs that say “CORRELATION DOES NOT IMPLY CAUSATION” in all its hallways.

    And yearly remedial statistics classes for all journalists.

  • http://www.convenientcalendar.com mike

    It is obvious that if you are in a church setting you are more likely to gain weight, I know I have!

  • http://aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector_St_Clare

    I wonder if this survey would be similar if they looked at the Christian churches which still follow the discipline of fasting. I doubt it.

  • Paleocelta

    Did the studies or reports note any correlation of religiosity/obesity with the suburban lifestyle, which may be pertinent to the discussion?

  • Chris

    This study appears to be an analysis of a subgroup of a prospective cohort study of factors associated with the development of heart disease (the CARDIA study) and is being presented at the American Heart Association Meeting. What does this mean? This means that an approximately 250 word “abstract” was submitted to the AHA, they reviewed it, and it will be presented as a poster, or as a 10 minute talk. This work has not yet been submitted for “peer” review, or published in a setting that allows detailed understanding of the method of analysis or presentation of detailed results. That is why there are no methodologic details, and outside experts can provide no details either. Everyone is getting their basic information from a press release…

  • Bern

    Get Science, anyone?

    NICOLE: It’s he AIN’T heavy. :-)

  • Richard Bruton

    Church attendance is reducing in many parts of the U.S. while obesity is increasing. Just go to your local Wal-Mart if you don’t believe me. I’d say that obesity is up, across the board. While humans tend to be social eaters and therefore the more opportunities they have to be around others, where food is available, they may tend to over-eat.

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com David Rupert

    Squeezing through the eye of the needle…

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    And yearly remedial statistics classes for all journalists.

    Please help me understand how that would be helpful in this specific case.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    I agree with virtually all questions and observations about the content and quality of the analysis. That said, I must say that in 31 years as a religion reporter, I have sometimes wondered about church potlucks and obesity. The ones I go to tend to be high on both fat and carb content. And there is one particular mainline Protestant denomination, with a rich tradition of Wednesday potlucks, in which I have long noted what seemed to be a rather high percentage of truly obese clergy and lay leaders. Perhaps it has something to do with the regional food culture in areas where that denomination is strongest. Or maybe my observations are just skewed.

  • Dave G.

    Here’s what I noticed. How freely we toss the word ‘fat’ around in the media culture nowadays. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, the word ‘fat’ became almost anathema. In our rush to become a kinder, gentler civilization, people – we were told – had feelings. And we should always respect that. Overweight maybe. Gravitationally challenged perhaps. But never, ever fat. That was big when I was in college (no pun intended). What happened? Now the press treats being overweight like hanging out with socialists was in the 1950s. Wow. What a turn around. I just watched a series on CNN that literally made me feel sorry for overweight people. That is the interesting thing I noticed reading this. My how we do get pulled into the latest, hippest.

  • http://www.millennialstar.org/ Ivan Wolfe

    Or perhaps religious people are more likely to do heavy weightlifting, which causes and increase in BMI, putting them on the “obese” end of the chart without actually making them fat.

    I personally wish reporters would go after the ridiculous BMI that’s used to measure “obesity” (I have low body fat but am considered “morbidly obese” by the BMI) rather than constantly jumping on the “America is too fat” meme that has taken over the media.

  • astorian

    I don’t automatically dismiss the possibility that there’s a connection between faith and weight, but it would be helpful to know if similar people are really being compared.

    That is, are blue collar Mississipians who go to church every week heavier than blue collar Mississipians who don’t? Are religious software engineers in Seattle heavier than their agnostic cubicle-mates?

  • Dave

    Perhaps unchurched people worry themselves thin over their unshriven sins, while religious people get relaxed and fat in the knowledge of being saved. (Hey, it’s as good as some of the “explanations” on offer…)

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Excellent questions, astorian.

  • Hector

    Re: while religious people get relaxed and fat in the knowledge of being

    This might be a problem for Calvinists and others who believe in ‘assurance of salvation’, but my (Anglican) church, as well as Catholics (I don’t know about the Orthodox) does not hold to ‘once saved, always saved’.

    Indeed, ‘once saved always saved’ seems like a spectacularly terrible theological idea, it’s a licence for all sorts of misbehaviour.

  • Michael

    It’s possible those with low impulse control are seeking out spiritual fortitude in an effort to guide them to a healthier lifestyle. Give these people as much space in the pew as they need, because they’re not just looking for healthy bodies, but healthy souls, too.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Give these people as much space in the pew as they need,

    :-)

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    (And I say that as one who takes up more of the pew than he’d like ….)

  • John D

    Earlier, Bill asked about a fourth-year student being the lead researcher. Although this is not Get Science, it does offer another point where journalists could explain things better.

    Why would a fourth-year be the lead researcher? How is that determined?

    Frequently in a grad program, a student will go to her or his advisor and propose a line of inquiry within the larger area of the advisor’s interests. The advisor’s job is to vet this, questioning the student over methodology and interpretation. Students who do this typically get first author credit because it is their research.

    Research advisors will also sometimes hand projects to students. “Look into this…” In that case, the student is not proposing the line of research. An advisor would typically take first author credit on such papers.

    As you can guess, issues of who gets named in what order can be very contentious, especially on research involving collaboration between research groups.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    John D,

    Along those same lines, the news release says that the researchers studied 2,433 men and women for 18 years. Did this fourth-year medical student begin the project in elementary school? Seriously, I wondered about the issue of the study’s continuity and who is involved.

  • Chris

    Re: Bobby’s question in 25:
    This is a subgroup analysis of an ongoing cohort study called CARDIA (since 1983). See the links: http://www.cardia.dopm.uab.edu/ and http://www.cardia.dopm.uab.edu/o_brde.htm. A cohort study is one in which a group of people are followed over time. Their characteristics are measured when they enter the study, and at time points thereafter.
    Basically, the research team at Northwestern selected a large sub-cohort from the CARDIA study (there were over 5000 persons who entered originally). In other words, the authors are analyzing data that was already collected over 20 years. The Framingham Heart study is another example of a cohort study. That’s why a person who was maybe only a child when the study started can do this–he/she is analyzing existing data.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Thanks, Chris. That makes sense.

  • http://gottagetgoing.blogspot.com Kunoichi

    Arrgghh!!! This story touched on a major peeve of mine – the dreaded “obesity epidemic.” A rediculously exaggerated, alarmist diatribe that is killing more people than fat ever could.

    In a couple of places, I saw the word “glutton” being used – but like the “obesity” epidemic, it’s twisted.

    Derived from the Latin gluttire, meaning to gulp down or swallow, gluttony (Latin, gula) is the over-indulgence and over-consumption of anything to the point of waste. In the Christian religions, it is considered a sin because of the excessive desire for food or its withholding from the needy.

    Yet when the term is used, they’re equating it to overeating, or just eating a lot. Assuming, of course, that fat people(like myself – I am fat, not a disease) really do eat more than thin people. Study after study has shown that fat people have diet and activity levels no different than thin people. “Overweight” people live the longest and recover quickest when they do become ill. The BMI category that shows the greatest risks are the “underweight,” and it’s only at the most extremes of high weight that people start to have the health problems equal to those in the “underweight” category.

    So what does this have to do with religion? Maybe people who are believers are more likely to love and accept themselves, making them less likely to fall for body dysmorphia and diet themselves to death.

  • Karen

    When I started attending church as an adult, I gave up mountain climbing on the weekends. Seems clear that a less active lifestyle will pack on the pounds, even without potlucks. The study did not look at activity levels.

    But a longer life seems a decent tradeoff for a fatter religious life.

    And what Kinoichi said is true.

  • Bill

    I forget where, but a few years ago I saw two reports on the same newscast: The first was on the obesity epidemic, the second was about one-third of American school children going to bed hungry. Yes, I know this is statistically possible, but it does make one wonder. A hundred years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt was concerned about Americans getting enough calories. Apparently we’ve solved that problem.

    This, too, is anecdotal: I’ve noticed while perusing old yearbook pictures and other period photographs, young people of 70 years ago appeared to be much thinner than they are today. And we’re told that they were a lot more religiously observant.


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