Add another notch to the Bible Belt. Religion can be good for your soul but bad for your waistline, especially if you’re a southern Baptist, a recent study suggests.

Studies have found obesity levels are highest in the South, where greater percentages of people claim religious affiliation. The region also has the country’s highest proportion of Baptists.

But in a new study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Purdue University researchers Krista Cline and Kenneth Ferraro compare body mass indexes by religious affiliation. They found Baptists have the highest percentage of obese persons, followed by fundamentalist Protestants.

The researchers said Baptists and other Protestants are guilty of “overgrazing the flock,” emphasizing abstaining from practices like drinking and smoking, while downplaying the need for moderation in food consumption.

Most religions condemn overeating and gluttony, the study says, finding evidence that some groups, like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, play that role. But other faith groups have not made weight management a priority.

“Many religions in the United States place priority on constraining sins such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity,” the authors said. “Gluttony does not receive the same level of pastoral or congregational condemnation in most denominations, perhaps indirectly creating an ‘accepted vice.'”

They said religion’s success in curtailing smoking might even play an inadvertent role in weight gain, because some people use tobacco to suppress hunger.

The researchers said churches might even encourage overeating by using food in celebratory functions instead of alcohol. “From Sunday school donuts to church pot-luck dinners, food, especially high-fat foods, are key to the social organization of many U.S. religions.”

They acknowledged it may not be that religion causes obesity, but rather that it might be a form of “social selection,” where people who are overweight seek consolation and welcome in a “religious haven” from social stigma.

But they also accounted for the fact that religion does not always take place at church. Another significant finding was that females who actively engage in watching, listening to or reading religious media have higher BMI readings. That could be because food can be readily available while consuming religious media, they said, and most religious entertainment is sedentary.

The researchers found a different result for men. The more they used religion for consolation, the less likely they were to be obese. “This means that men may be turning to religion, instead of food, as a form of comfort and through this avoiding obesity.”

“Although this study does not permit a definitive answer, we believe that the Baptist emphasis on abstaining from certain practices such as alcohol and tobacco does not translate well to the need for moderation in foot consumption,” the authors conclude. “Baptists may find food one of the few available sources of earthly pleasure. It appears, moreover, that the denomination gives low priority to characterizations of excess dietary consumption as immoral.”

The authors said some faith groups consider physical activity relatively unimportant when compared to spiritual matters. Others, meanwhile, emphasize the “Temple of the Holy Spirit” as a dictum for holistic health.

“At a minimum one can conclude that obesity is becoming more prevalent in the United States and that many religious denominations are being swept along with this ‘megatrend,'” the study reported. “Some religious activities and affiliations may reduce the risk of obesity, but Baptist and fundamentalist Protestant leaders may want to consider interventions for the ‘overgrazing of the flock.'”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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