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Surprising Science

How Church Can Make You Really, Really Fat

Conventional wisdom tells us that church is good for us and obesity is bad for us. So what are we finding when we research the link between the two? On both superficial and profound levels, we could be finding that regular church attendance could cause peace of mind at your waistline’s expense. It’s a bizarre connection indeed, so what would Jesus do?

Ground zero for the argument could be the state of Mississippi. A recent survey from Gallup shows that, while Vermonters tend to skip the local church ceremony on Sundays, residents of Mississippi were the most frequent churchgoers. The state where 63 percent of residents claim to attend weekly church services also happens to be the state that has among the most glaring problems with obesity among both adults and children. In fact, Mississippi has topped the nation’s obesity rankings the past five years, tipping the scales, as it were.

This data doesn’t provide a real corollary between church and obesity. And there is some evidence of a number of people using prayer and observance as alternative medical therapy, particularly in the prevention of meningococcal disease. While a recent study shows that religion makes no difference in heart health, it’s the Mississippi connection between religion and obesity that ties a more direct negative connection.

In an interesting Purdue University study, sociology professor Ken Ferraro found that affiliation with the Baptist and Protestant church increased the risk of obesity, going as far as to call religion a “feeding ground” for obesity.  Ferraro also cited an earlier study at the Pawtucket Heart Health Program that found regular churchgoers were more likely to be more than 20 percent overweight.  While Ferraro found a direct link between obesity and the Baptist Church, particularly among women, he found Judaism to be at the bottom end of the church-chunk spectrum. Conversely, he found that obesity did not drive people to the church.  

Similar studies from Cornell University back up this relationship.  So maybe the whole Mississippi thing isn’t just a statistical coincidence, especially considering Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion data confirming that Baptists are, well, obese.

It’s hard not to be somewhat skeptical of any study citing a connection between religion and obesity. After all, both the medical and religious communities are critical of each other’s ingrained biases.  But if science is to be believed, you might want to avoid the drive-thru window on your way home from the Sunday sermon.


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