DEAR JIM: My wife and I have each gained more than 40 pounds since we joined a new church two years ago. We have always prided ourselves in maintaining a healthy weight, but something is amiss because we have noticed that the rest of the congregation seems to be gaining weight too. We attend services twice a week and Bible study every Friday night. This probably sounds stupid, but can too much religion make you fat? DISCIPLE IN DETROIT
DEAR DISCIPLE: Well, yes and no. It probably isn’t the religion per se that is causing the weight gain but, rather, the culture of the church or of religion in general that can cause you to gain weight.
Nevertheless, churches should be concerned because recent research reported by Health Sciences Editor Maria Paul at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and described by CNN Health suggests that frequent religious participation almost doubles the risk of obesity compared to little or no participation.
Why? It isn’t exactly clear. “Churches pay more attention to obvious vices like smoking or drinking,” said Matthew Feinstein, lead author of the research and fourth-year medical student at NWUFSM. “Our best guess about why is that…more frequent participation in church is associated with good works and people may be rewarding themselves with large meals that are more caloric in nature than we would like.”
Marriage, which is typically a favored church tradition, may also be an indirect cause of gaining weight. “The time period studied is when many Americans get married,” said Kenneth F. Ferraro, director of the Center on Aging and the Life Course at Purdue University. “We know that weight gain is common after marriage and that marriage is highly valued in most religious groups. Thus, one wonders if the results could be partially due to religious people being more likely to get married earlier and then gaining weight.”
“What’s ironic to me, says Pastor Erik Christensen of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square in Chicago, “is that in my congregation we are working on a childhood obesity initiative and spend a lot of time thinking about weight and food. We sit and have a potluck and talk about obesity.”
However, “The real value of the study is not understanding why,” said Feinstein. “What this study does is highlights a group that could potentially benefit from targeted anti-obesity initiatives. That’s exciting because there is a lot of infrastructure already in place in religious communities.”
If you and your wife have gained weight since you joined the church and you have observed that others in the congregation may have also gained weight, you might have a unique opportunity, as Feinstein suggests, to propose a lifestyle change to church leaders to encourage more physical activity at church functions and, perhaps, serve a little less on the potluck plate.
Jim Evans is a 44-year veteran of the health and fitness industry and internationally recognized fitness consultant. He is a member of the Visionary Board of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA). Readers can send their questions about health and fitness to Jim at [email protected]