Are You Being Fed? Church Going and Obesity

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For many years, churchgoers have boasted about medical studies that point to a relationship between church attendance and better physical and mental health. Studies show that regular churchgoers live longer and respond better to serious illnesses. In addition, regular church attendance is associated with better lifestyle habits, including lower percentages of smoking and substance abuse. Other studies suggest that meditation (the relaxation response) is a positive factor in terms of blood pressure, stress, and overall wellbeing. Still other more controversial studies connect intercessory prayer with better results following surgery.  This has led physicians to invoke language such as "religion is good for your health," "the faith factor," and "healing words."

Some more recent medical studies, however, suggest that regular churchgoing might actually be bad for your health. A Northwestern University Medical School study indicates that young adults active in church are significantly more likely to be obese in middle age. Another study indicates that "prayer changes things," but not in the way we might hope. Last year, a Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, also conducted at Northwestern University Medical School, showed that religious involvement, including more frequent prayer and meditation, was associated with a greater prevalence of obesity.

These results have led both to theological reflection and a bit of good humor, such as, "Praise the Lard," "God makes you fat," and "Praying won't help you lose weight, but exercise will!"

No one quite knows why church activity is related to obesity, but I suspect some of the following factors may be at work: the social nature of church-going, which often involves eating, meetings that regularly involve coffee and donuts, and the hospitality associated with church life, including the acceptance of obese persons. One researcher even suggested a version of the "the Lord gives and the Lord takes away": the fact that fewer churchgoers smoke may lead to satisfying oral needs through eating.

I found the studies quite challenging personally and corporately. I know that my forty-year practice of meditation has led to greater personal and spiritual wellbeing. It has also led to what my wife Kate calls a Buddha-belly, a fine little bulge within which I can contain, as the Buddhas did, the universe! I recall one afternoon, when I was serving as an interim pastor of a town and country church, that I made five pastoral visits. In each visit, I was given true country hospitality: a cup of coffee and a piece of pie! Needless to say, my sixty-mile drive back to the Washington DC suburbs where I lived was a long one!

The old adage, invoked by many pastors—"If they love you, they'll feed you"—may be detrimental to clergy wellbeing. Buddha-bellied and all, when I gather with a group of pastors, I'm regularly among the thinnest in the crowd! Ouch! This reality has become a major issue in the area of clergy wellness and health insurance.

God said, "It is good." This applies to food—both in nutrition, taste, and fellowship. Our faith is embodied and incarnational, but it need not always be rotund. Jesus enjoyed food and fellowship—meals with friends as well as social outsiders were at the heart of Jesus' ministry. Jesus fed thousands and often invited himself to peoples' homes for dinner. We don't need to be ascetics to be spiritual. We need to remind ourselves as we chow down at the church potluck dinner that Jesus probably walked five or ten miles a day in addition to enjoying table fellowship.

But, we need to ask ourselves what it means to see our bodies as the "temple of God" and "glorify God" in our embodiment. Surely it means striking a balance between rest and activity, but it also means being aware that our diet and lifestyle as a personal and moral issue. We need to eat more simply—and stay away from processed foods—so that others may simply live. Eating lower on the food chain—including lowering our intake of all types of meat as well as sugar and corn derivatives—contributes to greater health for us, other people, and the environment.

Perhaps, we can explore how to eat sensibly while enjoying the bounties of the earth. Stewardship, after all, involves our care for our bodies as well as our material resources. Our waistline will not exclude us from the realm of God or God's graceful care, but it may prevent us from fulfilling God's vision for our lives as a result of ill health or inability to do certain things because of the impact of our weight on mobility.

We need a new kind of "body prayer," one that challenges us to move with the spirit by walking, jogging, swimming, or other types of individual or group exercises. We also need to experiment with potluck dinners that combine those great desserts and main dishes with low fat, low calorie, and gluten-free recipes.

I believe that the church can be countercultural in its connection of food with ethics, its stewardship of the body, and its call to join spiritual disciplines with physical activity.  We can taste and see the goodness of God in ways that promote health as well as rejoicing in the bounty of the earth.