The nation's churches and synagogues have a weight problem.
The multiple health benefits of an active faith life tend to stop at four-course Shabbat meals and church supper tables groaning with fried meat, biscuits and gravy, new research shows.
In one study of some 5,500 women and men ages 45 to 84, participants were more likely to be obese the more religiously active they were. Each step of the way, from those never attending worship to those attending weekly, greater religious activity was associated with significantly higher rates of obesity.
And in a separate study of a predominantly Orthodox Jewish community in Chicago, more than half of adult respondents were overweight, including 24 percent who were obese. Even more troubling, 26 percent of the children in the study were obese, twice the rate found in the general population.
The integral role food plays in many religious rituals and social functions and a desire not to stigmatize overweight members are among the reasons researchers offer for this anomaly in findings related to religion and health.
The only sermons that would get less approval than those asking members to cut back on eating would be those asking for money, said Shanna Granstra, a Baylor University researcher studying religion and obesity.
"It's a difficult issue to tackle," she said. "Food is almost like sex, especially considering how obsessed our culture is with food."
Religious activity is generally associated with good physical and mental health.
Six major studies of mortality risks in the last 10 years found frequent worship attenders were anywhere from 18 percent to 35 percent less likely than non-attenders to have died during the time period studied, says researcher George Fitchett of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Rising obesity rates, however, are a notable exception to the generally positive record, Fitchett said. He presented his findings on religion and obesity at the recent joint meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association in Milwaukee.
People who attended services or otherwise participated in organized religion weekly were 62 percent more like to be obese than those who never participated, according to data from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis of adults ages 45 to 84 sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
In a separate study of 2,500 healthy women and men, researchers following up with participants 18 years later found 32 percent of frequent worship attenders became obese. In comparison, just 22 percent of non-attenders became obese, Fitchett reported. The data was taken from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study funded by the heart and lung institute.
Solving the problem is not going to be easy, researchers say.
A full table, either at a church supper or a Sabbath meal, is symbolic to many of "God's blessing to us that we can have this bounty," Fitchett says.
The researchers who studied the Jewish community in Chicago found many participants did not perceive their weight to be a problem. For example, 70 percent of parents of obese children said that their child was about the right weight or underweight, researchers reported in the Journal of Community Health.
There is also a sense that religious leaders have to pick their battles.
Unhealthy eating is lower on the list of pastoral concerns, researchers say, than problems like drug and alcohol abuse, which have greater potential for destroying the lives of individuals, families and other members of the community.
Granstra says some religious leaders may think: "We've taken away everything else, it's hard to take away this one acceptable vice."
Perhaps the most difficult challenge in addressing obesity is how to bring up the subject without offending or stigmatizing overweight people in the pews.
Obese white women already are far less likely than healthy-weight women to attend religious services, Granstra found in her research using data from the Portraits of American Life Study.
Maureen Benjamins of the Sinai Urban Health Institute in Chicago, a lead researcher in the community health survey in Chicago, suggests focusing on "a positive, pro-social message" that everyone can benefit from physical activity and healthier eating habits.
"If you keep it at that general level, you don't have to worry about people being stigmatized," she said in an interview.
Religious groups also may want to consider offering workout classes and nutrition seminars to all members so no one feels singled out, researchers say, instead of addressing the topic from the pulpit.
And it would not hurt to offer more fruits and vegetables as alternatives at congregational meals, Fitchett says.
Given all the protective health effects of religious participation, and the social value of community meals, however, don't expect donuts to disappear from Sunday morning coffee hours or latkes to be left off of Shabbat plates.
There is a time for every indulgence under heaven.
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