If you go to church regularly as a young adult, you will more likely than not become obese by middle age.
Full-stop. What? Pray, eat, gain too much weight!
Well, that’s a broadly interpreted word about a medical school research project.
Let the jokes begin about faith and food, church and calorie, Lord and lard, sweet Lord and sweet tea, prayer and potluck dinners, obedience and obesity.
Obesity, of course, is no joking matter. Health experts identify obesity as a national epidemic that puts overweight people at significant risk to diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
“The epidemic is most alarming among American children: rates have tripled among kids ages 12 to 19 since 1980, with one third of America’s youth now overweight or obese and almost 10 percent of infants and toddlers dangerously heavy,” reported Newsweek a year ago. “If current trends continue, nearly one in three kids born in 2000 – and one in two minorities – will develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime.”
ABC News reported last year that some 9 percent of medical spending was related to obesity. An obese individual spent $1,470 annually more in medical expenditures than a normal-weight person.
The same report said average Medicare expenses were about $4,700 annually for a normal-weight individual, compared to $6,400 for an obese person.
Obesity is not just a matter of poor personal choices, however. It’s a systemic issue. It’s a social justice issue related to the commercialization of fast foods, the lack of good food options in poor neighborhoods, the power of the food industry to manipulate diet for profit, and the failure of political leaders to discourage harmful food choices through taxation.
Obesity is also a spiritual matter. Note the moral concept of gluttony. Yet some Christians have surely dropped gluttony from the list of seven deadly sins. If we haven’t, then we have disconnected healthy food from good faith, as evidenced by what is served at Wednesday night church suppers and the appearance of some church leaders.
Case in point: Only a few months ago, sitting several rows behind a Southern Baptist Convention agency head, I saw him flag a Delta flight attendant and ask for a seatbelt extension.
Now, what did the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine study about young adults who attend church regularly find?
“Young adults who frequently attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age then [sic] are young adults with no religious involvement,” said the school news release.
“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.
He said, “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.”
The Northwestern study followed 2,433 men and women for 18 years.
The study found that normal-weight young adults (ages 20-32) who attended at least one religious activity each week “were 50 percent more likely to be obese by middle age after adjusting for differences in age, race, sex, education, income, and baseline body mass index.”
Sadly, evangelical Christians “are the only major religious group where a majority opposes the federal government’s efforts to reduce childhood obesity,” according to a Religion News Service story about a Pew Research Center survey.
“Asked if the government should play a significant role in reducing childhood obesity, 56 percent of white evangelicals said it should not, compared to 42 percent who said it should,” reported RNS. “Overall, 57 percent of Americans favored such a government role while 39 percent did not.”
RNS noted that “First lady Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ initiative has drawn both praise and criticism from conservatives, and divided potential GOP presidential candidates, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee supporting it and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin opposed.”
Huckabee has a long-time record of advocating for exercise and healthy food choices.
“Michelle Obama’s not trying to tell people what to eat or not trying to force the government’s desires on people,” said the former Arkansas governor and former president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. “She’s stating the obvious, that we do have an obesity problem in this country.”
Huckabee said, “The first lady’s campaign is on target.”
The good news from the Northwestern medical school is that the faith community can play a constructive and productive congregational role in addressing a significant health issue.
“Here’s an opportunity for religious organizations to initiate programs to help their congregations live even longer,” said Feinstein. “Church-based interventions have shown promising results.”
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray for daily bread, he probably meant the basic food necessity for life, not a super-sized, calorie-intense drink with a large portion of French fries and a double patty of beef with extra cheese dripping in some kind of sauce.
Let’s find ways to connect constructively our faith to our food.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.