Church Feeds the Soul, But What About the Waist?

For African American men, a new study tells us frequent church attendance predicts double the risk of obesity. That’s versus men who seldom attend. But in these data, researchers found no such link for women.

Health in Faith-Based Settings

Keisha Bentley‑Edwards used data from the National Survey of American Life. It’s a fascinating study with important clues for promoting health in faith-based settings. The data comes from in-depth interviews with 4,344 black Americans. Researchers looked for relationships among obesity, diabetes, and religious practices.

The gender differences are striking. But the literature is very mixed on this subject. In fact, Godbolt et al recently found no relationship between church attendance and BMI for men, regardless of race. However, for women, they found a different relationship. Among white women, frequent attendance predicted less obesity. For black women, the relationship was just the opposite. More church attendance means more obesity.


Looking at denominations, Bentley‑Edwards found no differences in obesity. For diabetes, though, it was a different story. She found higher risk among Baptists. Risks for Presbyterians and especially Catholics were lower.

No doubt about it, the relationship between religion and obesity is messy. Add in race and ethnicity, and then the picture gets even murkier.

Looking solely at religion, a recent review tells us that the relationship with obesity is real. But it’s complex. That’s because it interacts with so many other social factors. Nonetheless, it’s an important part of a complex web we must untangle. Obesity moves through social networks. And for black Americans, religion is a critical part of the social network.

We need better and deeper research here. First to understand it. And then to do a better job of promoting health in faith-based settings.

Click here for the Bentley-Edwards study and here for more perspective on it.

Potluck, photograph © Parker Knight / flickr

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August 25, 2019

One Response to “Church Feeds the Soul, But What About the Waist?”

  1. August 25, 2019 at 9:34 am, Mary-Jo said:

    With this increased risk, yes, more research into what’s driving the increased prevalence is needed — not just for blacks, but to see how it al plays into general issues affecting obesity — weight stigma, importance of social contagion, or, alternatively, support, things like discipline, asceticism, fasting. This post made me think of the studies that looked at higher suicide rates in Protestants vs. Catholics. Protestants appear to bear a heavier individual ‘Bible-based’ responsibility for their faith, holiness, etc and have a greater ‘everything or nothing’ dynamic, whereas Catholics have their ‘evil’ natures tempered by good works and ability to go to confession with much more social support in congregations. Apparently, this led to changes in Protestant churches to emphasize fellowship more than it did.