religion makes you fat; okay, only SOME do

This is bound to be popular with chubby fundamentalists. You know where the Comments button is, people!

Weighty matter: Is religion making us fat?

August 25, 2006


Back in the decadent early 1980s, New Wave rocker Adam Ant mocked clean living in his maddeningly catchy song, “Goody Two Shoes.”

“Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do ya do?” Ant taunted.

A new Purdue University study may hold the answer to Ant’s question.

If they don’t drink and don’t smoke, what do they do?

Eat, apparently.

“America is becoming known as a nation of gluttony and obesity, and churches are a feeding ground for this problem,” says Ken Ferraro, a Purdue sociology professor who studied more than 2,500 adults over a span of eight years looking at the correlation between their religious behavior and their body mass index.

“If religious leaders and organizations neglect this issue, they will contribute to an epidemic that will cost the health-care system millions of dollars and reduce the quality of life for many parishioners,” he says.

Casserole as sacrament

Ferraro’s most recent study, published in the June issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, is a follow-up to a study he published in 1998, where he found there were more obese people in states with larger populations of folks claiming a religious affiliation than elsewhere — particularly in states with the most Baptists.

So it’s not surprising that Ferraro’s latest study found that about 27 percent of Baptists, including Southern Baptists, North American Baptists, and Fundamentalist Baptist, were obese.

Surely there are several contributing factors to such a phenomenon, but when Ferraro accounted for geography (southern cooking is generally more high-caloric), race and even whether overweight folks were attracted to churches for moral support, the statistics still seem to indicate that some churches dispense love handles as well as the love of the Lord.

Having attended a Southern Baptist church for most of my formative years, I was hardly shocked by Ferraro’s discoveries. From the coffee (and doughnuts) hour after Sunday-morning worship, to the huge potluck dinners and the Sunday-night ice-cream socials, there was always food around, and it was rarely the lo-cal variety. Ambrosia salad. Seventeen different kinds of chicken/broccoli/cheese casserole. Banana-and-Nilla-wafer-pudding. Fried chicken. Barbecue chicken. Sweet tea.

Those were the elements of our social sacraments at the Baptist church.

In religious traditions where drinking alcohol, smoking anything and even dancing are vices regularly preached against from the pulpit, overeating has become the “accepted vice,” Ferraro says.

Or, as Homer Simpson so eloquently put it on his way to a First Church of Springfield picnic: “If God didn’t want us to eat in church, he’d have made gluttony a sin.”

‘Overgrazing of the flock’

Food often is substituted for alcohol at Baptist and other conservative Protestant gatherings, Ferraro says. I once attended a wedding at a conservative Bible church where, instead of an open bar or champagne fountain, the bride and groom toasted their new beginning with a massive ice-cream sundae buffet.

I kid you not.

“Baptists may find food one of the few available sources of earthly pleasures,” Ferraro says.

Exhibit A: The Rev. Jerry Falwell, Baptist king of the Christian right. Falwell has been accused (rightly) of being many things.

Chubby, for instance.

He may not drink or smoke, or think lusty liberal thoughts, but it looks like the good reverend has never met a plate of cheese grits he didn’t love. And it may have cost him. Falwell, 73, was hospitalized last year for acute congestive heart failure. His hefty weight, doctors said at the time, wasn’t helping matters.

“Baptist and fundamentalist Protestant leaders may want to consider interventions for the ‘overgrazing of the flock,’ ” Ferraro says.

No Protestant dietary rules

While some megachurches have fitness facilities and long have offered exercise classes as well as Bible studies, in most congregations you’re still more likely to find a bake sale than a spinning class on any given Sunday.

Ferraro’s study also found that about 20 percent of “Fundamentalist Protestants,” (Church of Christ, Pentecostal, Assemblies of God and Church of God); about 18 percent of “Pietistic Protestants,” (Methodist, Christian Church and African Methodist Episcopal), and about 17 percent of Catholics were obese.

By contrast, about 1 percent of the Jewish population and less than 1 percent of other non-Christians, including Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others), were tipping the scales with commensurate gusto.

“In my mind, one of the distinctive things about Christianity, particularly American Protestant Christianity, is we don’t have any [dietary] behavior codes,” said Daniel Sack of Chicago, a historian and author of the 2000 book, Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture.

“Islam does, Judaism does, Catholicism does, but basically there’s nothing scriptural and in most [Protestant] traditions as long as you don’t drink, you’re fine. Particularly in that Baptist cohort, that’s the only real rule.”

This is true. Even on the Sundays when we celebrated the “Lord’s Supper,” i.e., communion, we had thimble-sized cups of Welch’s grape juice to go with our chunks of home-baked white bread. No Jesus juice allowed.

Often gathering around food

“Food plays an important social role in the life of a religious community, particularly in the Protestant tradition,” said Sack, an ordained United Church of Christ minister. “In Judaism and Catholicism, [religious celebrations] are largely family-oriented and so they’re home based. Typically Protestant food practices tend to be much more congregational.”

And that might have a lot to do with how most Protestant congregations are formed. Increasingly they’re not geographic. People will drive for miles to attend the church they like. Theologically speaking, this kind of community is called a “gathering congregation.”

“A gathering congregation has to gather around something, and it’s often around food,” Sack says.

Perhaps, as Ferraro suggests, more churches might want to consider turning the fellowship hall into a gym, putting down the Krispy Kremes, and gathering instead around a plate of crudite before taking a brisk walk with the pastor after church.

Because, ya know, blessed are the weight watchers.


15 thoughts on “religion makes you fat; okay, only SOME do

  1. Oh sooooo true! Bunch of fat hypocrites. By the way, know why Baptists don’t have sex standing up? Someone might think they’re dancing!!!! Oh I just love myself!!!

  2. I’m from the Deep South, and I will say that the cooking down there is quite fatty and can account for some of the problem, but I think on a large scale, across the nation, it doesn’t account for nearly as much corpulence as prepackaged and fast foods, chips, cakes, etc., you know—the whole “on the go” lifestyle. And, of course, lack of exercise due to automobiles. Cyclists and pedestrians rock.

    This was a very interesting article…humorous, and compelling. I wish the author would have explored the flip side, however, which is that the 40 million people who starved in 2003 did not starve because the world produced a shortage—there was a surplus that year, as every year. It is the distribution system that is unfair, because the larger economies of America and Europe and now east Asia demand all of this gluttonous consumption, food and otherwise, to stay afloat and to keep growing. The US hands out economic aid like it’s all gonna be over tomorrow—but it’s largely unmanaged and unsupervised. Like the famous Clinton “warlords” skit on SNL. Studies have suggested that the US’ annual defense budget of about $450 billion (on the books, the real figures are higher) is more than enough to feed, clothe, inoculate, and educate the world’s needy. In one pass. Realistically it wouldn’t work that simply, of course, but the basic premise is not invalidated—one can argue that America isn’t responsible for feeding the third world. But if we view overpopulation as a major problem, and it clearly is, well, sociologists from all camps will tell you that the quickest way to curb population growth is to raise the living standard.

    Very interesting article—I just wish she’d gotten around to the dark side. Well…it’s not tough to figure out, I suppose. Thanks for the chance to comment.

  3. Thanks for the comments: a primo collection!

    Kenneth Cole shoes has an ad where they compare the budget for the invasion of Iraq with the price of feeding and housing the American homeless indefinitely. And it’s true; they could have SOLVED that problem, but instead they took on Iraq. And good fucking luck to them.

    A friend of mine worked at Duke University; they have a world famous obesity clinic. She said it was the hardest thing to do, live there and NOT gain weight. She seconds your opinion of Southern cooking, but mind you she did say it was delicious. Although it took her TWO YEARS to find out what kind of meat was in “Barbeque”. No wonder you haven’t got a huge number of Jews and Muslims down there. Everywhere she went she’d ask “so, what kind of meat is in the ‘barbeque’?” and they’d reply “Barbeque.”

    I did hear that the UN had concluded the quickest way to raise the living standard is to allow women free access to contraception, but that is, for obvious reasons, a political hot button.

  4. hey there, i might agree with some points of this article. i think that in history, religious and political leaders always need to control people. i mean, in these terms, someone who is fat may feel a bit lost time to time and low on his feelings and self-respect: then, you run to pray and try to get closer to religion, to get some comfort back.
    thank you for sharing.

  5. You’re welcome. I think what’s happening is that it’s sampling America alone. I’d expect Eastern Orthodox to give them a run for their money, and of course animism in Fiji and Samoa, where people are huge and PROUD, but they’re only looking at Americans.

    Still, it is interesting. And of course it certainly has an impact on their life expectancy. I have an aunt who’s very Born Again, and she’s constantly in a struggle with her weight because every celebration she attends (and there’s always something to celebrate) she has to bring ambrosia or a cake or something like that.

  6. Americans are fat because they get fed too much cheap junk food. I mean, have you ever ordered breakfast over there, you get a mountain of french toast with half a pack of bacon for $2.95. They eat too many doughnuts too, over here when we buy coffee, we buy coffee, end of, over there it’s ‘coffee and half a dozen mixed doughnuts please’.

    Meat is cheap in the US too, if you go to a BBQ, it’s like ‘how many 16oz steaks do you want with your mountain of french fries?’

    If they drank too they would be enormous.

  7. Food mmmm nothing better than a nice Fatty BBQ Meat. Unfortunately the main issue is that we use less of our body energy in our modern day life now than we would in the 80s or earlier.

    What do most of us do (not just Americans but most 1st world countries) we drive to work and sit in a nice comfy office and then come home cook dinner and start watching TV or Bloging :). Hardly any excersise there.

    Oh well I suppose the reality is its up to ourself to eat healthy and excercise more.

  8. “In religious traditions where drinking alcohol, smoking anything and even dancing are vices regularly preached against from the pulpit, overeating has become the “accepted vice,” Ferraro says.”

    This one made me laugh! LoLz I have to say that even being born again and a missionary in Southeast Asia, Amen, I agree 110%! All those hypocritical Christians out there preaching against vices and not the Word from the Pulpit sit and practice Gluttony more often then not..

    Gluttony, drinking, dancing, smoking, cursing are not the problem. They are just a by – product of a deeper issue, a stoney heart.

    Thanks for the post.

  9. You’re welcome. Personally, I think that overeating in Southeast Asia is about as close to harmless as an activity can possibly be. I ate like a hog the five weeks I was in Indonesia and the Phillippines, and I lost close to ten pounds. I think it just melted off. Five meals a day, every single item of which was fried, three hours of lying on a beach and the rest of the time reading on the verandah and I still lost weight.

    God, I have GOT to get back there.

  10. I have to ask what the author felt was so different between the modern adult lifestyle and that of the eighties. Not that he/she’s wrong, but I don’t see much that I believe is different in my own life from that of my parents.

    Falwell isn’t ill–God just loves his ass so much He’s calling him home early. Honestly, though, it’s a long damn line from saying a 73-year-old is fat and unhealthy to saying it’s got bugger-all to do with one’s religion.

    I think this writer may have the cart before the horse, as possibly per the other above (what comments could YOU have been getting to turn them off? Enquiring minds wish to know!) .

    The issue may not be to do with religiosity in any given form, but rather more to do with a North American lifestyle that glorifies the idea of “value” as being “more” vice “better” for your money (because “better” is so much harder to quantify in an advertising jingle) and in which classically, the economic leverage and purchasing power of the average earner is out of proportion to the rest of the world.

    The economic and dietary traditions of the faiths cited may have something to do with physical health, after all: Hindus eschew cow’s meat, Jews and Muslims avoid pork (a meat often served drenched in sugar-laden barbeque sauce or fried), and Catholics have a fine tradition of one meatless meal (usually fish–and who hasn’t been told to eat more fish lately?) per week.

    But I feel if this study were wider, the differences in religion or religiosity would be subsumed by differences in things like education, earning power and geographic differences.

  11. Your points about dietary restrictions are covered in the study if you read closely; remember, this is an article about a study, and there are effectively two authors.

    Back in the Eighties a study correlating obesity rates and background found that those of Eastern European extraction, first-generation Americans, were the most likely to become obese. I think this shift may reflect a shift in immigration, since North America is getting more people from areas of low obesity and fewer from areas of high obesity (or high propensity towards it). Assuredly some of this is genetic: I used to feed horses for a living and I can say absolutely that two beings of exactly the same size, on exactly the same food, will respond quite differently. Metabolism (and genetics) have a great deal to do with this.

    So in that, I guess I’m in disagreement with you. I think it reflects ethnic background; you think it reflects class structure and proximity.

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