Obesity and religion -- some thoughtfulness amid the snark


Americans seem more than a little interested -- by turns amused, abrasive and put on the defensive -- by a recent study linking church attendance to obesity in middle age. But the predictable reactions occasionally give way to thoughtfulness.

First came the headlines as the media scrambled to spread the word about the study presented at an American Heart Assn. session this week: “Praise the lard? Religion fosters obesity by middle age.” “Religion and obesity: Can church make you fat?” And even, “Does God make you fat?”

Some articles suggested the weight gain might be the fault of potlucks or long hours sitting in pews. And this CBS News story said: “We don’t recall any of the commandments saying “thou shall eat chocolate cake,” but an unusual new study has found that people who regularly attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to battle obesity by middle age. God only knows why. The scientists sure don’t.”


Then came the reaction from readers, including these comments on the L.A. Times version of the story: “Pray it ain’t so: Young religious adults may be more likely than nonreligious peers to become obese by middle age.”

Wrote one: “It’s simple: folks who don’t believe in physical cause and effect (i.e. science) are more likely to go to church and more likely to overeat. Praying to get thin doesn’t work; diet & exercise do.”

Then another: “Hmm ... I believe religious people are supposed to refrain from being judgemental as well and we all know how well that works out... This isn’t an anti religion bias, this is a study that shows one thing; religious people tend to be a little pudgier. It doesn’t imply causation, it’s just an interesting correlate. Stop getting bent out of shape, aren’t you late for the church bake sale anyways?”

And of course there were the out-of-left-field comments, charges of anti-religion bias, assorted bits of dietary advice and political snipes. (Because what kind of discussion would it be without a political snipe of some sort?)

But occasionally there was this sort of comment: “The church doesn’t make people fat, but they may be more welcoming to people who are. Perhaps these enviorments are perceived as being less judgemental about such things as appearance and may therefore create a more hospitable environment for peer social interaction.”

Such thoughtfulness is welcome -- as are the multiple comments pointing out that correlation is not the same as causation.

So until more research is done about why going to church is linked to obesity, it’s safe to keep the faith. And to keep questioning what studies really mean.