Could church make you fat?

In an Associated Press story in 2004, I let my creative juices flow this way:

In the Bible Belt, fried-chicken fellowships and potbellied pastors are as much a part of the culture as NASCAR races and sentences that start with "Y'all." Churches traditionally have not worried much about waistlines.

I don't know if that paragraph would win a GetReligion seal of approval, but I enjoyed writing it at the time.

Fast-forward seven years, and the size of religious people's bellies is again making news. And like yours truly, most media are having some fun with the story.

The headline at

Praise the lard? Religion linked to obesity in young adults

Time magazine's take:

Why Going to Church Can Make You Fat

Over at USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman describes it this way:

Uh-oh. All those pizzas luring young adults to church activities may have unintended consequences. The devil may be in the pepperoni: Folks who stick with church for years often wind up fatter than their unchurched peers.

The news peg drawing reporters' interest? A study by Northwestern University medical researchers. A Northwestern news release provides the basic facts and quotes used in most of the news reports:

CHICAGO -- Could it be the potato salad? Young adults who frequently attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age as young adults with no religious involvement, according to new Northwestern Medicine research. This is the first longitudinal study to examine the development of obesity in people with various degrees of religious involvement.

"We don't know why frequent religious participation is associated with development of obesity, but the upshot is these findings highlight a group that could benefit from targeted efforts at obesity prevention," said Matthew Feinstein, the study's lead investigator and a fourth-year student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "It's possible that getting together once a week and associating good works and happiness with eating unhealthy foods could lead to the development of habits that are associated with greater body weight and obesity."

Previous Northwestern Medicine research established a correlation between religious involvement and obesity in middle-age and older adults at a single point in time. By tracking participants' weight gain over time, the new study makes it clear that normal weight younger adults with high religious involvement became obese, rather than obese adults becoming more religious.

Later, the news release notes:

The authors caution that their findings should only be taken to mean people with frequent religious involvement are more likely to become obese, and not that they have worse overall health status than those who are non-religious. In fact, previous studies have shown religious people tend to live longer than those who aren't religious in part because they tend to smoke less.

Most of the news reports on the study are about as thin as religious people are, presumably, fat. CBS News, Religion News Service and the Los Angeles Times all basically rewrote the news release.

I was pleased, however, to find a few cases where news organizations dug deeper, although obvious questions -- the religious breakdown of those studied, the specific religious activities involved, just to name a few -- remain mostly unanswered.

One of my first questions was this: Could it be that religious people marry younger and, thus, start putting on more pounds because of that?

The Chicago Tribune addressed this question:

(Purdue University sociologist Ken) Ferraro, who was not involved in the study, called it "intriguing and important." But he wondered whether the observed effect was only seen in women. And he also questioned the role of marriage, since the study focuses on the time period when many Americans get hitched.

"We know that weight gain is common after marriage and that marriage is highly valued in most religious groups," he said. "Thus, one wonders if the results could be partially due to religious people being more likely to get married earlier and then gaining weight."

ABC News provided, by far, the most insightful coverage that I found. Even the lede managed to nail the bigger picture:

Americans who are religious are more likely to be happy, healthy ... and hefty?

ABC also delved into the spiritual and theological realms.

On the spiritual side:

"Another possible explanation is that religion encourages a focus on the afterlife and might thus distract a bit from focusing on the health goals in this one," said Katz.

Concerning theology:

Sociologists Krista Cline and Kenneth Ferraro noted that, in America, religions tend to focus on constraining sins such as smoking, drinking and promiscuity, while gluttony became a more acceptable vice to indulge in.

Dr. Keith Ayoob, director of the Nutrition Clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, added that amid the atmosphere of restriction, food can also become "a legitimate, socially acceptable drug."

ABC even questioned whether the study's failure to account for location might be an issue:

The southeastern part of the United States, often referred to as the Bible Belt, has the highest concentration of religious populations and also contains some of the states with the highest prevalence of obesity.

While Feinstein's study draws on populations from around the country (Alabama, Minnesota, Illinois, and California), researchers did not control for location and, hence, it may have been that the Alabama participants skewed the association by having large populations of overweight and highly religious participants.

Not the best writing in the world, but ABC presents a fuller -- fatter, if you will -- account than other reports and raises intriguing questions.

MSNBC also showed some initiative in interviewing real religious people. (No, I don't think the reporter asked their weight.) This was my favorite section of that report:

Jessica Ward, a 30-year-old notary public who regularly attends the Kent Lutheran Church, in Kent, Wash., says potlucks can definitely be filled with delicious temptation.

"You don't see a lot of fresh stuff at most church potlucks," she says. "You'll see spaghetti and Swedish meatballs and three or four varieties of potato casserole or green bean casserole or Jell-O salads. Plus heaps and piles of desserts -- lots of pies and cakes and cookies."

Hmmmmm, that sounds like a lot of church potlucks that I've attended. I don't know why, but suddenly, I'm hungry. Food and fellowship, anyone?

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