In their Sunday best… but not in the best of health.
A new study has found that young folks who regularly attend church are more likely than those who don’t to grow obese in middle age, CNN reports. In fact, frequent churchgoers are nearly twice as likely to be obese than those who rarely or never attend. But why?
“Churches pay more attention to obvious vices like smoking or drinking,” Northwestern University’s Matthew Feinstein, lead author of the research, told CNN. “Our best guess about why is that… more frequent participation in church is associated with good works and people may be rewarding themselves with large meals that are more caloric in nature than we would like.”
The study, presented at an American Heart Association conference, involved 2,433 people enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. Testing for various cardiovascular disease risk factors like hypertension and diabetes began when the subjects were between the ages of 20 and 32; studies continued over the following 25 years.
Some believe that marriage has a lot to do with the connection between church attendance and obesity. “The time period studied is when many Americans get married,” Kenneth F. Ferraro, director of the Center on Aging and the Life Course at Purdue University, told CNN. “We know that weight gain is common after marriage and that marriage is highly valued in most religious groups. Thus, one wonders if the results could be partially due to religious people being more likely to get married earlier and then gaining weight.”
Others blame church potluck dinners for the prevalence of obesity among middle-aged churchgoers. “There’s certainly a church culture around eating,” agreed Erik Christensen, pastor at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Chicago. “What I see among congregants in their 20s and 30s is they are very fit and what I see among congregants in their 50s and 60s is disproportionate obesity,” he told CNN.
Still, the findings of this study don’t square with numerous other studies that have found religion to be quite good for your health– both physically and mentally. Frequent churchgoing has been associated with lower stress levels, and lower stress levels mean less illness. Regular worshipers also report lower levels of mental illness, less substance abuse, and a greater sense of meaning in life. Some studies have even suggested that regular church attendance leads to greater longevity.
“On the whole being relgious has been shown by many studies to be associated with better mental health, lower smoking rates, lower mortality rates and better overall health status,” Feinstein told CNN. “There are a whole lot of things religious people are doing right, but it’s just this specific area (obesity) where there appears to be room for improvement.”