Big Fat Believers and the Expanding Bottom Line

Interestingly, of all the health behaviors, weight and weight-loss is the one that is worse among those who are more religious. Research has repeatedly shown that religious people weigh more than atheists and the non-religious. Could this be because eating is the one sin permitted? Could it be because of all of those church potlucks and suppers? Could it be because of the types of foods provided at these church gatherings? Could it be failure to partake vigorously in the delicacies offered at social events be viewed as an insult to those who prepare the food? Could it be that religious socialization is often a sedentary event that involves exercising the jaw muscles rather than the rest of the body? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.  I suspect that all of these contribute to the problem.

Being overweight is no minor problem for members of the faithful. According to a 2010 Surgeon General’s Report, the prevalence of obesity increased from 1 in 8 Americans in 1980 to more than 1 in 3 in 2008. As a result, the rate of diabetes has also tripled since 1980. Overall, obesity contributes to 112,000 preventable deaths each year, and overweight persons have a greater risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, cancer (endometrial, breast, prostate, and colon), cardiovascular disease, gall bladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and respiratory problems. So, what can religious people do about losing weight or maintaining a healthy body weight despite the pressures that may be on them to consume?

Eating is the one sin permitted. Okay, so let’s stop permitting it. The Bible teaches that the body is the “temple of the holy spirit” (Corinthians 6:19). So, moderation in food intake is a sign of respect for the body and an expression of honor for it as a temple in which God dwells and through which God does His work.

Church potluck suppers. There is not much one can do about this, nor would one want to stop or reduce activities such as these that promote fellowship and relationship-building. Getting together in this way helps to build and strengthen the body of Christ in the church. However, there is something that can be done about the content that is provided at these eating events.


Types of foods offered.  Church suppers often provide foods that are rich in fats, sugars, and calories. Seldom does one go to events when only celery, raw carrots, broccoli, and apples are the main courses. Thus, a lot could be done in terms of increasing the offerings of vegetables, salads, and fresh fruit, as well as low calorie, high protein fish or fowl. For example, competitions for recipes that make such foods palatable and enjoyable could be held; classes could be offered at the church that emphasize healthy meal preparation; and so forth.

Insulting the hostess. While modifying this cultural norm could take some effort, placing emphasis on modest eating of healthy foods and educating church members about the dangers of being overweight may help bring down this barrier to weight loss. Such education may also help those who prepare foods for such events to feel less insulted when others do not partake of the food prepared or partake of it sparingly.

Sedentary religious activity. There are ways to socialize and enjoy fellowship that don’t require sitting down and eating. For example, there is prayer walking, where a group of church members get together in the morning and walk together, while praying, socializing and sharing, expending energy and shedding unwanted pounds. Prayer walking can also include singing praise hymns together and otherwise worshiping God together as a group.

The bottom line is that church member needs to pay attention to their weight and engage in healthier patterns of eating in order to preserve their health and ability to carry out God’s work in the world. The alternative can often be chronic illness and disability that turns God’s people into the group that needs to be cared for rather than the group that is caring for others.

Harold G. Koenig, MD


Harold G. Koenig, MD, MHSc., completed his undergraduate education at Stanford University, his medical school training at the University of California at San Francisco, and his geriatric medicine, psychiatry, and biostatistics training at Duke University Medical Center. He is board certified in general psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and geriatric medicine, and is on the faculty at Duke as Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Associate Professor of Medicine, and is on the faculty at King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as a Distinguished Adjunct Professor. He is also a registered nurse. Dr. Koenig is Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, and is considered by biomedical scientists as one of the world's top experts on religion and health.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage