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Religion may help obese shed pounds, gain self-esteem

In a nation suffering from obesity, late-night talk show hosts are increasingly heaping on the shame and guilt. It sometimes seems the thinner the comic, the more cruel the joke.

Listen to Jimmy Fallon’s sensitivity to an adolescent population most vulnerable to self-esteem issues: “A school in Massachusetts is facing criticism for sending kids home with ‘weight report cards’ that alert their parents to obesity issues. That could get awkward: ‘Well Gary, the good news is you got an A; the bad news is, it’s between an F and a T.’”

For religious groups, there’s really good news: Substantial research shows churches, synagogues and mosques can promote exercise, healthier diets and improved self-images.

And there’s really bad news: The cultural stigma promoted by celebrities like Fallon and David Letterman appears to be keeping some overweight people from entering the doors of houses of worship.

Shanna Granstra of Baylor University found obese women were more likely to affiliate with a religious congregation, but less likely than other women to attend services, according to her study presented at the October meeting in Baltimore of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

“The religious beliefs of obese women may be strong enough to prompt them to belong to a religious community and religion may serve as a comforting place for them in a judgmental world,” Granstra says. “However, this is not enough to prompt increased attendance or further engagement in a religious community.”

By staying home, the research indicates, obese individuals lose the spiritual and social support that can lead to better health and become further paralyzed by real and perceived prejudice.

View a Question from the National Congregations Study on Congregational Fitness Programs

‘Couch-potato saints’

Researchers from Purdue University, in a study published in 2006 in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, found that women who reported higher rates of church attendance were less likely to have a severe weight problem.

But the study using data from the Americans’ Changing Lives survey also found that women who meet their spiritual needs through religious media such as television and radio shows are more likely to be obese. The finding regarding these “couch-potato saints” is consistent with other research showing higher rates of TV watching is related to obesity.

“The more women attend religious services, the lower their risk for becoming obese; however, the more women engage in religious media practice, the higher their risk for being or becoming obese,” Krista Cline and Kenneth Ferraro found.

Obese women want the spiritual and social gifts of religious life, Granstra found in her study “Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged: Relationships between Body Mass Index and Engagement in a Religious Community.”

Analyzing data from the Panel Study of American Religion and Ethnicity, she found, “The odds of an obese woman being affiliated with a congregation are 41 percent higher than a woman with a BMI (Body Mass Index) score in the healthy range.”

But the desire to be affiliated did not translate into religious activity. Obese women were less likely than “healthy-weight women” to attend services or otherwise participate in congregational life.

There are several reasons their personal convictions do not appear to be enough to get obese persons to attend services, according to Granstra. Many relate to their fear of being stigmatized in a social setting. Higher rates of depression among the obese also make it harder to engage in public activities.

Her research suggests that many obese women are meeting their needs through television and radio evangelists or other media sources that provide a solitary, less-judgmental setting. That setting, however, lacks the social resources that can promote healthier lifestyles.

What can religious groups do?

Religious messages have tended to be mixed on the subject of healthy eating. Many religious groups maintain that gluttony is a sin, but place greater attention on other areas of concern from promiscuity to alcohol and drug abuse. Overeating has become what some term an “acceptable vice,“ one that is encouraged by pot-luck suppers and donuts and pastry accompanying worship.

But there also is growing evidence that religious groups can help active members achieve a healthy body weight.

Researchers from the United States and Korea found women of Korean descent living in California were less likely to be overweight or obese if they heard frequent messages from pastoral leaders and other congregants encouraging a healthy diet and exercise, according to a study “Can Religion Help Prevent Obesity,” published earlier this year in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Churches also can make sure they are welcoming in ways that meet both emotional and physical needs, Granstra says. Tightly spaced, older wooden pews and small plastic chairs for Bible study can be a source of embarrassment and discomfort for severely overweight people.

Once inside, many are finding that a religious support system can lead to healthier lifestyles, particularly among poorer populations who may not have the financial and other resources to help them control their weight.

Still, the roadblocks are pervasive. In a 2007 op-ed piece in The New York Times, the actor Harvey Fierstein discussed the not-so-harmless consequences of David Letterman’s constant fat jokes among other examples of public prejudice. His point: “Prejudice tolerated is intolerance encouraged.”

In other words, it probably ain’t over until the fat-cat, talk-show hosts stop singing.


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