Young adults who frequently attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age as young adults with no religious involvement.
By tracking participants’ weight gain over time, the study shows that normal weight younger adults with high religious involvement become obese, rather than obese adults becoming more religious.
“We don’t know why frequent religious participation is associated with development of obesity,” Matthew Feinstein, the study’s lead investigator said.” 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.”
The study, which tracked 2,433 men and women for 18 years, found normal weight young adults 20 to 32 years with a high frequency of religious participation were 50 percent more likely to be obese by middle age after adjusting for differences in age, race, sex, education, income, and baseline body mass index.
High frequency of religious participation was defined as attending a religious function at least once a week. Obesity is defined as having a body mass index of 30 or higher. A woman who is 5’5 and 180 pounds has a BMI of 30, for example.
The men and women in the study were part of the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) multi-center study, supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
“Obesity is the major epidemic that is facing the U.S. population right now,” says senior study author Donald Lloyd-Jones, associate professor of preventative medicine at Northwestern University.
“We know that people with obesity have substantial risks for developing diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer, and of dying much younger. So, we need to use all of the tools at our disposal to identify groups at risk and to provide education and support to prevent the development of obesity in the first place. Once the weight is on, it is much harder to lose it.”
People with frequent religious involvement don’t necessarily have worse overall health status than non-religious people—only that they are more likely to become obese.
In fact, previous studies have shown religious people tend to live longer than those who aren’t religious in part because they tend to smoke less.
“Here’s an opportunity for religious organizations to initiate programs to help their congregations live even longer,” Feinstein says.
“The organizations already have groups of people getting together and infrastructures in place that could be leveraged to initiate programs that prevent people from becoming obese and treat existing obesity.”
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A version of this article was first published on Futurity.