"America is becoming known as a nation of gluttony and obesity, and churches are a feeding ground for this problem," says Ken Ferraro, a professor of sociology who has studied religion and body weight since the early 1990s. "If religious leaders and organizations neglect this issue, they will contribute to an epidemic that will cost the health-care system millions of dollars and reduce the quality of life for many parishioners."
He analyzed the religious practices and body mass index, often referred to as BMI, of more than 2,500 people during an eight-year period from 1986 to 1994. He found that the use of religious media resources, such as television, books or radio, was a strong predictor of obesity among women. The incidence of obesity increased by 14 percent for this group. At the same time, the more often women attended religious services, the less likely they were to be obese.
Men were less likely to be obese if they sought counseling and comforting through religious sources, Ferraro says.
"This means that men may rely more on religion, instead of food, as a source of comfort during stressful times," says Ferraro, who also is director of Purdue's Center on Aging and the Life Course.
To counter these effects, religious fellowship should encourage physical activity and healthy eating, Ferraro says. He suggests organized walks with the pastor after services and serving fruit and vegetables instead of heavy casseroles. Churches' large rooms or halls also could be used for fitness classes.
Ferraro's study, which was published in the June issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, identified different religious characteristics, such as affiliation and attendance, as well as gender, and their effects on weight. He also measured the impact of a person's belief in his or her faith, how someone practiced his or her faith, and a person's tendency to seek comfort and support from religious figures.
Obesity is defined as a body mass index - weight divided by height squared using the metric system - greater than 30. Ferraro says 30 percent of adults over the age of 20 is now identified as obese and another 34 percent is overweight, meaning a body mass index of 25 to 30. Obese and overweight people are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses like adult onset diabetes and heart disease. Increasing health-care costs, social discrimination and a poor quality of life also are consequences of an obese lifestyle, Ferraro says.
In other health contexts, religion is considered positive. Prayer, meditation and the social interaction provided by religion can be good for people's health, he says. Some studies show that people who read the Bible more often have lower blood pressure, and people who are more religious are less likely to be depressed.
"Most religions also encourage restraint from participating in injurious behaviors, such as heavy drinking and smoking," Ferraro says. "However, overeating is not considered a great sin - it has become the accepted vice."
Many religious activities are rooted in food. From the donut hour after weekly services to receptions or picnics, these foods tend to be high in fat.
"These high-fat meals are saying implicitly, 'This is how we celebrate,'" Ferraro says. "Instead, religious leaders need to model and encourage physical health as an important part of a person's spiritual well-being."
This study is a follow-up to one Ferraro published in 1998 that showed a correlation between weight and religious practices. Ferraro found there were more obese people in states with larger populations of people claiming religious affiliations, especially in states with a higher number of Baptists.
But "being religious" can produce different attitudes and behaviors, so Ferraro wanted to know more about these groups' characteristics and identify behaviors that were likely to lead to obesity. Unlike the first study, this one follows subjects over eight years to help explain why religion and obesity are related. For instance, he tested alternative explanations, such as the idea that overweight people seek religious consolation, but found no evidence for that proposition. The current study also differentiates between religious denominations and reaffirms that Baptists are more likely to be obese. Fundamentalist Protestants had the second highest rate of obesity in this sample.
"This cause could be from less healthy eating patterns in the South, home to many Baptists," Ferraro says. "But we controlled for residency and still Baptist women were more likely to be obese. This trend could be related to the strong emphasis for Baptists to avoid alcohol and tobacco, and, as a result, many of them indulge in overeating instead. More research is needed to learn how denominations view overeating and obesity."
Additional analysis also needs to focus on the religious practices and habits of women who use religious media resources, Ferraro says. One limitation of the study was that specific forms of media were not distinguished, so the researchers are not sure if this group is composed of people who only watch television, listen to religious radio programming or read religious materials. Watching television is already a known risk factor for obesity, he says.
"We do know that the electronic church is much more appealing to women," Ferraro says. "So, the next step is learning how this venue can help communicate the importance of healthy living to this target audience."
Churches can be wonderful resources to educate people about health issues, Ferraro says. Often churches are sites for health fairs and screenings, as well as blood drives.
"With more awareness and education, churches can be a positive force in fighting obesity," he says.