Faith and Fat: Religious Youths More Likely to Be Obese by Mid-Life

VIDEO: A provocative new study sheds a new light on our spiritual activities.

Americans who are religious are more likely to be happy, healthy ... and hefty?

According to research from Northwestern University, youths of a healthy weight who frequently participated in religious activities were twice as likely to become obese by middle age than their less-religious peers.

Even when controlling for race, sex, education and income -- several factors that could independently be affecting likelihood of obesity, this affect remained. Researchers drew on data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study, which tracked weight and a number of physical and behavioral variables, including religious involvement, in more than 2,000 men and women over the past two decades.

"We had previously found that those with high religious involvement were more likely to be obese [as middle-aged or older adults], but we wanted to follow people over time to make sure that people who are religious are more likely to become obese, not that people who weigh more are more likely to turn to religion," said Mathew Feinstein, lead author of the study and an M.D. candidate at Northwestern University.

Several studies, including some of Feinstein's past work, have found an association between high religious involvement and obesity, but the studies didn't necessarily find an association between religiosity and negative health outcomes, such as markers of cardiovascular disease. Indeed, several studies link faith to an increased lifespan, more positive mood, and avoidance of unhealthy behaviors like drinking and smoking.

In the current study, for instance, the more frequently participants attended religious services, the less likely they were to smoke. The avoidance of such unhealthy behaviors may explain, in part, why religious people live longer, said Feinstein. But why they tend to put on more weight than their less-religious peers remains a bit of a mystery.

Faith and Fat: Why Religiosity May Tip the Scales

Feinstein posits that one possible explanation for the link between religiosity and weight may be that religious gatherings may center on unhealthy or high-calorie meals, thus creating a habitual association with religious works and overeating.

"Social aspects of religion almost invariably involve food and feasting," said Dr. David Katz, director and founder of Yale University's Prevention Research Center.

Many diet experts thought that an attitude shift among people of faith may also be behind the link.

"Another possible explanation is that religion encourages a focus on the afterlife and might thus distract a bit from focusing on the health goals in this one," said Katz.

Another possibility is that religious people take a fatalistic attitude towards their health, which Katz has seen in his own work.

"It's in God's hands, so I will just let come what may" is the attitude some take, he said.

Carla Wolper, a registered nurse at the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, agreed with that possibility, saying that believing that God is control of one's life may reduce the likelihood that those of faith take matters into their own hands and make changes.

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