Firm believers more likely to be flabby,
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A Purdue University study of religion and body weight finds
that religious people are more likely to be overweight than are nonreligious people.
Purdue study finds
Sociology Professor Kenneth Ferraro found the correlation between being overweight
and being religious was statistically significant regardless of a person's choice
of faith. The findings, published in the March issue of the journal Review of Religious
Research, came from analyzing data collected in two national surveys.
"The religious lifestyle has long been considered a healthy one, with its constraints
on sexual promiscuity, alcohol and tobacco use," Ferraro says. "However, overeating
may be one sin that pastors and priests regularly overlook. And as such, many firm
believers may have not-so-firm bodies."
But Ferraro says religion may curtail some of the unhealthy effects of being overweight.
"What appears to be happening is a counterbalancing effect," he says. "Religious
adults report higher levels of well-being. In general, obese persons are more likely
to be depressed and dissatisfied with their health, but among religious persons, weight
had no effect on well-being."
Ferraro says he doesn't think religions intentionally promote higher body weight,
but two factors may be at work. "American churches are virtually silent on excess
body weight, despite a Biblical dictate for moderation in all things," he says. "In
the Book of Proverbs, gluttony is listed with drunkenness as a sign of moral weakness, but
few religious groups have any proscriptions against overeating."
At the same time, he points out, most religions promote acceptance. "Overweight people
may find comfort in religious settings. Temples, synagogues and churches may provide
an important source of acceptance in the midst of a society that highly values fit
bodies," Ferraro says.
Ferraro utilized a 1993 state-by-state comparison of data collected from public records
by the MicroCase Corp. Among the measures identified were levels of obesity and religious
memberships. Ferraro's study also included a 1990 survey funded by the National Institute on Aging called Americans' Changing Lives. That national poll questioned
3,617 people age 25 years and older.
In state-by-state comparisons, Ferraro found the percentage of obesity highest in
states where religious affiliation was more prevalent. Michigan, Mississippi and
Indiana were among the states with the highest percentage of overweight persons.
Likewise, obesity figures were lower in states that had the least number of religious persons.
Those states included Massachusetts, Hawaii and Colorado.
Ferraro's study analyzed many factors related to obesity. "When you consider other
theoretically relevant variables, religiosity is still associated with a higher proportion
of obesity in all 50 states," he says.
The Americans' Changing Lives survey was broken down according to different religious
denominations. It also included information on nonreligious persons. Height and weight
were self-reported by those polled, and the results were analyzed using a standard
body mass index. "Given that heavier people tend to underestimate their weight when
reporting it, the relationship between religion and body weight may actually be stronger
than what we reported," he says.
Being overweight was a tendency across all religious beliefs. "Baptists tended to
be the heaviest, with Jewish, Moslem and Buddhist groups the least overweight," he
says. "However, when we controlled for social class, ethnicity and marital status,
the denominational differences in body weight were not significant."
Ferraro says the connection between obesity and health is a growing national concern.
"Public health officials are trying to figure out why our society is getting fatter.
Average adult body weight has gone up at the same time that sales of athletic footwear and the numbers of aerobics classes have also increased," he says.
Ferraro says the finding that religion and obesity may counterbalance each other is
also important. "Next, I would like to do a longitudinal study to see whether religion's
sense of well-being keeps people healthier or whether the unhealthy effects of obesity eventually cause people's general health to decline," he says.
Source: Kenneth Ferraro, (765) 494-4707; e-mail,
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail, email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A copy of the journal article mentioned in the story is available
from Beth Forbes at Purdue News Service, (765) 494-9723.
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