Does being religious make you fat?

faaaaaatMost people go to church to get spiritually fed. The church provides a safe environment where its members can experience the wonders of religious life. Of course, while spiritual nourishment and religious experience are certainly important, they are not necessarily the only reason why people go to church. Another reason might be the social aspect of relating to others who share the same beliefs. However, there may be a slightly startling side effect of church sociality: according to a research team led by Matthew Feinstein (Northwestern University), those who regularly attend religious functions are more likely to be obese.

Feinstein’s team tracked 2,433 church members aged 20-32 for 18 years. Every single subject (both men and women) weighed in at a normal weight when the study began. Eighteen years later, those who went to a religious activity once a week or more had an increased chance of being obese. More precisely, these active religious participants’ chances of facing obesity grew by 50%. Even after adjusting for race, age, education, income, gender, and baseline body mass, the research team still found this to be the case. Their conclusion supports previous research (also conducted by a Northwestern University team) that found a similar link between obesity and attending religious events in middle-aged and elderly adults.

Of course, the key term in both studies is correlation. Those involved in religious functions may become obese, or maybe those who will become obese are more likely to attend religious activities, or maybe there’s an entirely unknown factor driving this correlation. Correlation is not causation.

Unfortunately, the Feinstein-led team did not offer much in terms of speculations about what the underlying cause of this correlation might be. Feinstein personally noted that, in his own experience, religious gatherings tend to feature unhealthy comfort foods, but he did not explicitly account for that in his study. In other words, he isn't saying he has data that shows the unhealthy food at these gatherings is the cause of religious obesity – only that it’s something that he’s personally observed.

While attending religious gatherings may correlate with putting on a few pounds, Feinstein also mentioned that religious people still tend to live longer and enjoy better mental health. Churches provide a strong social environment, and the benefits of making life-long friends cannot be easily dismissed. Feinstein recommends that church members and their friends become pro-active and start health-awareness programs that will emphasize the importance of diet and exercise.

In short, the solution does not seem to be abandoning church or religion, but simply taking care of oneself. In Christian churches, the body is described as God’s temple; time to keep it looking good.

For more, see MSNBC’s “Praise the lard? Religion linked to obesity in young adults.”