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.

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  • plowshare

    A lot more can be said about socializing without eating than is said here. I’ve participated in many evening discussion groups on faith-related matters where no refreshments were provided, and on the whole they were more stimulating than the ones where they were provided. And believe it or not, the majority of high school and church dances I participated in decades ago did not have food served, or else charged for it.

    Also, with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade approaching, it is appropriate to mention marches and rallies. Only a small minority of the people I’ve seen at these events are noticeably overweight, and very little in the way of food and drinks is available. It is hard to eat while marching, and even harder to eat while holding the signs that are used at Life Chains.

  • I would take exception to the statement, “Eating is the one sin permitted”. Have you heard of the Capital Sin of Gluttony?

    And my diabetic doctor would disagree that fats and calories put on the pounds but it is the carbohydrates that turn into sugar that turns into fat, that we become overweight. It’s the potatoes, rice, pasta, sugar that make us fat. I know this to be true because when I began to listen to my doctor and got off the carbohydrates I lost over 90 pounds.

    I did go to confession for the sin of gluttony! Being a Cajun and eating rice almost every day wasn’t easy giving it up. But by the grace of God, I did.

  • bronwyn

    I try to fast and/or abstain from a meal and find it very challenging. However, I do not want to blame potluck suppers and carbohydrates since they have been around for a long time. What has changed is our lifestyle.

    I used to walk to school, our family walked to Church, my mother walked to the grocery store and then they would deliver the groceries as she walked back home. Today we drive everywhere–including drive-thru restaurants.

    We have the cursed “All You Can Eat Buffet” which condones over-eating, free refills of soda and super size portions that can feed two or more and is served as a single portion. I also notice that more families eat out and eat take-out meals more often. These foods are loaded with calories and salt which contributes to an unhealthy meal.

    I remember working in men’s retail in the 80’s and at the time the largest waist size for men was 36. Today I have seen sizes as large as 46.

    I do not blame potluck dinners. I blame the size of the paper plates. May I suggest a walk home from the potluck dinner? I think it would do world of good.

  • Yes, this is the time of year, everyone is making resolutions for the new year and I bet losing weight is on the top of most lists.

    Deacon Don’s doctor has a point about carbs being the culprit. But actually there’s more to it.

    Check out this video with the correct information –
    Click Here!

  • Pargontwin

    While I’m no medical professional, my own observations suggest that among some religious people, appearance is not as important as it is to more secular-minded.  Look at all the news articles there are about beauty, and some of the tips and suggestions they give are really picayune stuff.  For some of us, at least, myself included, there are things that are simply more important than physical appearance.   It doesn’t mean we don’t exercise; it simply means we don’t obsess about our weight.