Could Church Make You Fat?

New research shows that young adults involved in religious activities are more likely to become obese by middle age.

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A study by Northwestern University researchers concludes that young adults who are regularly involved in religious activities have a significantly higher chance of becoming obese by middle age. And the results are of special concern to black women, who are some of the most dedicated churchgoers.

Researchers followed participants (41 percent of whom were African American) for 18 years, and found that those who attended at least one religious event per week had almost twice the risk of becoming obese between early adulthood and middle age, compared with those who didn't have any religious commitments. The results held true even after these factor were taken into account: participants' sex, socioeconomic status, cardiac risk factor levels, education and race.

The researchers also found that the more actively religious participants tended to be women and African American and tended to have a larger BMI (body mass index).

Before you cancel this week's Bible study in hopes of dropping a dress size, take note: The results just show that young people with active religious involvement are more likely to become obese -- the investigators stress that the study does not prove in any way that participating in services will actually make you fat.

Perhaps the results could be explained by the food-based traditions surrounding many religious events, the fact that these activities tend to be relatively sedentary (catching the Holy Spirit does not count as cardio) or that some people are choosing them over exercise (after all, there's only so much time in the day). The study didn't get to the bottom of that.

On a more positive note for churchgoers, the researchers did find that aside from weight, religious individuals tend to be in overall good health.

The study was presented by Matthew J. Feinstein, M.D., on March 23 at the American Heart Association conference in Atlanta (Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism Scientific Sessions 2011).

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