Why Going to Church Can Make You Fat

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Maybe it’s all the church socials, but a new study finds that those who attend religious activities are more likely to gain weight than those who don’t go to church as often.

Religious involvement is linked to many positive health outcomes, such as happiness, lower rates of smoking and alcohol use, and even a longer life. But research has also suggested that middle-aged adults who are more religious are more likely to be obese. Past data have noted only a correlation between religiosity and weight gain, however; they did not show whether participating in religious activities leads to weight gain, or whether overweight individuals are more likely to seek support in their faith.

So researchers at Northwestern University sought to find out how attending religious events is associated with weight gain over time. They analyzed data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study, which followed more than 2,400 people aged 20 to 32 for 18 years. Over that time, the scientists reported at an American Heart Association conference, people who went to church or church activities at least once a week were more than twice as likely as people with no religious involvement to become obese.

While the study did not tease apart which church activities were associated with the most weight gain, the authors speculate that those who attended church were more likely to have a broader social network, which in turn may lead to more opportunities to gather over food and drink.

The results also suggest that religious groups could benefit from targeted diet and exercise programs, says study co-author Matthew Feinstein, to counteract whatever trends may be promoting weight gain among church-goers. The very social forces that may contribute to obesity, in fact, may be helpful in combating weight gain as well. “What is exciting, and why I think the overall message of the study is an optimistic one, is that by virtue of their pre-existing infrastructure and social support networks, religious groups and organizations are pretty well suited to enact health interventions for diet and exercise in a pretty efficient and effective manner,” says Feinstein, a fourth-year medical student at Northwestern. “They have a natural built-in support and follow up system which is extremely important in creating sustainable lifestyle changes.”

In fact, he and other colleagues have been working with a church on Chicago’s west side using education and nutrition education to address problems of obesity in the congregation. Other studies have supported the power of church-based health interventions, and church-goers are already known to have better overall and mental health than non-churchgoers. “Obesity is just one area where there is more room for improvement, to better health outcomes,” says Feinstein.