So Churchgoers Are Fatter But Healthier?

A Northwestern study attempts to paint a link between obesity and churchgoing

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Headline writers have had fun with a Northwestern University study purporting to find a link between attending religious activities and likilihood of becoming obese. "Firm Faith, Fat Body?" questioned the Christian Post. "Frequent Churchgoers Frequently Fatter," explained CNN in a tongue twister. "Does God make you fat?" wondered CBS. And our personal favorite: "Praise the Lard?" coyly asked MSNBC.

Quips aside, the research--which used mostly Protestant Christians--focused on a sample of 2,433 men and women over a period of 18 years, finding at the end of the longitudinal study that those who attended a religious function at least once a week were more likely to have a body mass index of 30 or higher.

"It's possible that getting together once a week and associating good works and happiness with eating unhealthy foods could lead to the development of habits that are associated with greater body weight and obesity," one of the study's authors, Matthew Feinstein, explained in a press release.

Part of the reason that the study appears to have gained traction is that it, in some ways, confirms a certain stereotype of a middle-aged Protestant: the potluck-going, prayer group-leading, purveyor of delectable but fattening "refreshments" at church events. Fair enough. But it's hard to tell what the study is implying. For one thing, causation is notoriously difficult to prove, and people often get heavier as they age, regardless of other variables.

At The Daily Beast, Casey Schwartz notes as much, writing "it's not clear what this study really tells us. The conclusions are based on a cohort of subjects who were examined for the first time more than 20 years ago. At the onset of the study, they were asked about their religious predilictions. They were never asked again....Therefore, the Northwestern research is linking religious habits as reported by a cadre of twentysomethings in 1987 with obesity rates nearly 20 years later."

Also, the study's authors cautioned that churchgoers don't have "worse overall health status than those who are non-religious." The Northwestern researchers also noted a few studies--and we're pointing out a couple more--observing that there is plenty of research detailing that churchgoers may be happier, live longer, and may perhaps have better physical health than the less devout. So maybe churchgoers are just pleasantly overweight?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.