WEDNESDAY, March 23 (HealthDay News) -- New research finds that
people who frequently attend religious services are significantly
more likely to become obese by the time they reach middle age.
The study doesn't prove that attending services is fattening,
nor does it explain why weight might be related to faith. Even so,
the finding is surprising, especially considering that religious
people tend to be in better health than others, said study author
Matthew J. Feinstein, a medical student at Northwestern University
"It highlights a particular group that appears to be at a greater risk of becoming obese and remaining obese," he said. "It's a group that may benefit from targeted anti-obesity interventions and from obesity prevention programs."
Scientists have been studying links between religious behavior
and health for years, and have found signs that there's a positive
connection between the two. The studies suggest that religious
involvement -- whether it's private or public -- is linked to
things like better physical health, less depression and more
happiness, said Jeff Levin, director of Baylor University's Program
on Religion and Population Health.
But researchers have also found signs that people who attend
services put on more weight. In the new study, which will be
released Wednesday at an American Heart Association conference in
Atlanta, researchers sought to follow people over time to see what
happened to them. They examined a previous long-term study that
tracked 2,433 people who were aged 20 to 32 in the mid-1980s.
Most of the participants were women, and 41 percent were
After adjusting their statistics to take into account factors
such as race, the researchers found that 32 percent of those who
attended services the most became obese by middle age, Feinstein
By contrast, only 22 percent of those who attended services the
least became obese.
What might explain obesity among those who attend services
regularly? There are plenty of theories.
Levin said one possibility is that those who attend services,
along with activities such as Bible study and prayer groups, could
be "just sitting around passively instead of being outside engaging
in physical activity."
Also, he said, "a lot of the eating traditions surrounding
religion are not particularly healthy; for example, constant feasts
or desserts after services or at holidays -- fried chicken,
traditional kosher foods cooked in schmaltz (chicken fat), and so
There's another question: Why might religious people be obese
yet still have good health? The fact that fewer are smokers might
help explain that, Feinstein said.
Whatever the case, he said, the study points to the role that
places of worship could play in reducing obesity.
"They can become part of the solution," explained Dr. Daniel P. Sulmasy, a professor of medicine and ethics at the University of Chicago, perhaps by increasing awareness of obesity and holding health fairs.
"Pastors, especially those in poor neighborhoods, could champion programs for more fresh produce and less fast food in their neighborhoods," Sulmasy added.
For more about
obesity, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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