Could church make you skinny?

Back in March, we tackled that age-old question: “Could church make you fat?”

That post explored media coverage of a study claiming that young adults who attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age than those with no religious invovlement.

Six months later, fat people in the pews are again making news — this time in The New York Times.

The headline:

Preaching a Healthy Diet in the Deep-Fried Delta

The top paragraph of the 1,200-word story:

HERNANDO, Miss. — Not much seems out of place in the Mississippi Delta, where everything appears to be as it always has been, only more so as the years go by. But here in the fellowship hall of a little Baptist church on a country road is an astonishing sight: a plate of fresh fruit.

“You get used to it,” said Arelia Robertson, who has been attending the church for almost eight decades.

Despite a dirge of grim health statistics, an epidemic of diabetes and heart disease and campaigns by heath agencies and organizations, the Delta diet, a heavenly smorgasbord of things fried, salted and boiled with pork, has persisted.

It has persisted because it tastes good, but also because it has been passed down through generations and sustained through such cultural mainstays as the church fellowship dinner. But if the church helped get everybody into this mess, it may be the church that helps get everybody out.

Now, that first sentence impressed me as vague beyond belief. My first response: “Huh?” But the piece picks up a little steam with the mention of a plate of fresh fruit in the second sentence.

Then there’s the opening quote, which seems less than overwhelming. Why not give the woman’s age and compare the fruit to the chicken-fried main dish served at fellowship meals 80 years ago? That might add some life to the story up high.

Keep reading, and we get to the nut graf:

For over a decade from his pulpit here at Oak Hill Baptist in North Mississippi, the Rev. Michael O. Minor has waged war against obesity and bad health. In the Delta this may seem akin to waging war against humidity, but Mr. Minor has the air of the salesman he once was, and the animated persistence to match.

Years into his war, he is beginning to claim victories.

The National Baptist Convention, which represents some seven million people in nearly 10,000 churches, is ramping up a far-reaching health campaign devised by Mr. Minor, which aims to have a “health ambassador” in every member church by September 2012. The goals of the program, the most ambitious of its kind, will be demanding but concrete, said the Rev. George W. Waddles Sr., the president of the convention’s Congress of Christian Education.

Nowhere does the story mention that the National Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest African-American denomination. For journalists, the question of when race is relevant in a story is always touchy. In this case, however, the omission seems strange.

The reference to this program as “the most ambitious of its kind” made me wonder: What other smaller programs like this are out there? Is Waddles the source on the “most ambitious” statement? Or did the Times determine that this is the “most ambitious” program of its kind. Even if it’s true, I’m not sure I’m clear on what it means.

It’s not a bad story. It provides some interesting insight on society’s overall obesity problem and some nice examples of Delta churches fighting obesity. But for a story about churches, it lacks much in the way of actual religion.

We’ve got Minor waging war from his pulpit, but no clear idea of exactly what it is he’s saying — from a spiritual or biblical perspective, that is. In other words, is this a religious undertaking — or a secular campaign that just happens to occur at a church?

More from the story:

When he began preaching his health gospel right from the start, he was met not by outright resistance — that would have been rude — but by a polite disregard. This is the way people have always cooked here, church members said, and they ignored him.

He argued that while the food may be the same, people’s lifestyles had changed, and few put forth the physical effort that life in the Delta once required. Preparing pork chops used to involve raising and slaughtering a pig; now it requires little more than a trip to the grocery store. But he eventually realized he would have to adjust his strategy.

Around 2000, he began enlisting his ushers and those from other churches to go after hesitant pastors with a baldly practical line of argument.

“Your sick members can’t tithe,” he said with a laugh.

Health gospel? What are the tenets of that gospel? Any actual biblical references or spiritual principles attached to it?

Did anyone — anyone at all — mention God? 

Photo taken just now by my wife, Tamie, of a cup of fruit. I’d prefer a chocolate chip cookie.

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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.

  • Sean P

    Health gospel as in any relationship to the “health wealth and prosperity gospel”? Probably is, especially with the reference to tithing at the end, I have no problem with tithing, it’s biblical, but tithing in the prosperity gospel equates to yourself becoming wealthier (sow, and reap), sad.

    And I agree with your last comment, they didn’t mention God, people should be in church to worship God and to serve Him and learn his truth.

    I’m all for a healthy lifestyle, you can workout and eat right outside of the church building.

  • Bobby

    Thanks, Sean. That would be interesting to know if there’s a tie-in to the prosperity gospel.

  • Jerry

    Sigh. I subjected this to my 2 minute Google challenge and found a web site with verses related to eating: It would have been nice for the reporter to ask about those and perhaps other verses. I would like to know if these ministers are using Bible passages from that site such as the following. But this does seem like an example of a reporter who get’s the idea of healthy eating but does not understand that a minister might have a Biblical reason for preaching healthy eating.

    1 Corinthians 6:19-20

    Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

    Proverbs 25:27

    It is not good to eat much honey, nor is it glorious to seek one’s own glory.

    1 Corinthians 9:27

    But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

  • Frank Lockwood

    Are they really claiming — with a straight face — that their denomination has some 7 million adherents in nearly 10,000 churches?

    If so, then their average congregation has just over 700 adherents.

    Does this really seem plausible? Are these membership figures independently verifiable or are they entirely faith-based?

  • Bobby

    That crazy new math…

  • Jay

    The “religious people are fat” was easy, but now skeptics will have to be a little more clever to spin this as a new “religion = bad” bullet in their arsenal.

  • Frank Lockwood

    Thanks for pulling up the diet-related Scriptures. But I cringed when I read that new-fangled translation of 1 Corinthians.

    “Do you not know?” sounds ordinary. “Know ye not?” sounds like Shakespeare, like King James, like England…

  • Dave G.

    Again, what stuns me is just how freely we toss the word ‘fat’ around. Remember back in the 70s, when we were striving for a kinder, gentler world? We started worrying about how to speak of folks who were physically challenged, visiually impaired, and of course, overweight. Fat was the new ‘F’ word. You can even see that in old TV shows from the period. Never use the F-word when talking of people who are gravitationally challenged. I know there’s no religion take here. Everytime I see it, I just think about it. Overweight kids are, of course, still among the most bullied in schools. And we know that not everyone who is overweight can help it. Yet how we toss that once forbidden word around. It makes you wonder just how reflective journalistic lingo is, rather than informative. And I guess in that, it does speak to how and why it may cover religion the way it does.

  • Amanda

    My family is from the Arkansas Delta, not the Mississippi Delta, but some of my observations may translate across state lines.

    Not much seems out of place in the Mississippi Delta, where everything appears to be as it always has been, only more so as the years go by.

    Really, NYT? Really? Hernando is just south of Memphis (surely, you noticed this when you flew in for the story), in one of the forty fastest growing counties in the U.S., near the economic effect of the Tunica gambling emporium.

    And more broadly in the Delta, nothing changes? Not the changes to communities as an interstate highway thirty miles away draws traffic away from the local state highway, and the businesses that developed on its route to serve customers? Not the towns in which buildings on main street don’t seem capable of finding customers? Not the new community colleges, clearly from their facades built in the last ten years, that provide some hope of a bit more economic prosperity, of the kind that comes from having some skills? Not the communities which do have new roads, new schools, new immigrants, new signs of change?

  • MJBubba

    Amanda, to the NYT the basic story of the delta people is the same as 100 years ago. People leave the farms to look for work in the cities, and the ones who stay cling to guns and religion and antipathy to people who aren’t like them.

  • Kunoichi

    @Dave G.
    “Never use the F-word when talking of people who are gravitationally challenged. ”

    As a woman of generous proportions ;-) I just wanted to weigh in on your comments. Pun unintentional, but I like it, so I’ll leave it. *L*

    Fat is a legitimate descriptor, and a word that many fat people who accept themselves as they are – or are trying to after many years of selfloathing – are reclaiming. (Do a search on the fatosphere or HAES) “Obese” is a term that sounds too medical, like a disease or disorder. We are not a disease. “Morbidly obese” is even worse. We’re a deadly disease! No, we’re not. We are not “overweight” since it implies that there is some perfect weight everyone should be, rather than the weight that is our body’s natural set point. The much flawed BMI tells us we must be in the “normal” range (normal, by definition, is what is most common, and most people fall into the “overweight” category and are therefore normal) or “healthy” range (our health is not determined by a category on a chart and is far more complex than a mathematical formula for height and weight).

    Euphamisms aren’t typically better, and should only be used in careful circumstances. They would not usually be professional to use in journalism.

    Though many still view it as an insult, the word fat is an accurrate discriptor that does not imply illness, disease or deviance from the norm. It is merely a discriptor.


  • Michael O. Minor


    Good evening! I certainly appreciate post. We have a strictly religious message. I’ve been most motivated by Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. First Corinthians 4:2 and 6:19-20 help mold my health and wellness ministry. Obviously, producing a 1000 word article from several weeks of interviews is difficult. We definitely mentioned God during our interviews. Also, we stated that the NBCUSA was the largest African American denomination in America. The H.O.P.E. Health Initiative is ambitious because we want to have a trained Health Ministry Ambassador in each one of our churches. That’s quite an undertaking with nearly 7 million members. For more information about our efforts, go to Yes, the church can make you skinny!:)

    Thanks and God bless!

    Michael O. Minor, EdD

  • Bobby


    Thanks for stopping by GetReligion! We always enjoy hearing from the actual sources of stories on a post such as this. As you probably figured out, GR is a website that critiques the secular media’s coverage of religion news.

  • Elaine Webb

    I have been listening to your pastor on PBS 89.1 talking about the changes in the meals provided at church being more healthy. I was glad to hear that. There is one thing, I would ask that you Google search Splenda and read carefully the information. My research shows me that Splenda as most of the sugar substitutes are not good for you and they in fact make you addicted to more sweet foods. Splenda is not a natural food as you were promoting eating foods direct from the source. Thank you and keep up the good work.

  • Dave G.


    Sorry didn’t get back to this, so don’t know if you’ll see this. I’m not really talking about using the word one way or another. I meant it was one of the formative things I remember at a young age. It was in those days that everyone – including the media and our pop culture – was one the whole ‘don’t use the F-word’ kick. I remember it well. I remember being told in school we shouldn’t. And it just reminds me of how (especially in a culture that sees yesterday suck, today’s OK, but tomorrow will be grand), today’s grand enlightenment is tomorrow’s throw away concept. That’s not to say I don’t think the crusade against the waistline isn’t without problems, especially in how they are making young people feel. Suddenly worrying about their feelings and self-worth seems a little thing next to the bigger problem. I have my ideas as to why this is, but that’s for another post.