Study linking faith to obesity draws dubious conclusions

Northwestern Medicine Research study connects faith and obesity.

Jeff Koch, Writer

Just last week, a study conducted by Northwestern Medicine Research determined that young people who call themselves “firm in their faith” are more likely to be overweight.

Yikes. But hey, I’m no medical professional. I’ll take their peer-reviewed word for it.

I do have a problem, though, with some of the implications and conclusions this study draws. According to the researchers, the culprits are the weekly fellowships, with the emphasis on breaking bread together and even the quiet stillness of prayer.

Sunday lunch and prayer promote obesity

Coming straight from the horse’s mouth, lead investigator for the study Matthew Feinstein reasoned, “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.”

So, according to Northwestern Medicine Research, the propensity for Christians to enjoy a hearty lunch after church promotes their tendency toward being overweight. The USA Today Faith and Reason blog even asks if it’s possible that the “sedentary nature of prayer” contributes to the phenomenon.

Study shows naps are healthy

I can’t imagine that there is no place in the healthy, happy American’s diet for one big, substantial meal each Sunday afternoon. Not to mention a big weekend meal so naturally segues into an afternoon nap, the health benefits of which doctors are just now beginning to praise: A 2007 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine argues that people who take occasional naps are nearly a third less likely to die of cardiovascular problems than people who don’t get mid-day snoozes.

And it’s cardiovascular problems that are a huge risk to the overweight. So, after you break bread with your church family this Sunday, remind them before you fade away on the couch for an hour or two: if a day of rest is good for God, it’s probably good for you too.

Active prayer reduces pain

As for sedentary prayer, that’s also got health benefits. The April 6 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience this year did a test and found that meditation was an extremely effective pain management technique, reducing the meditator’s experience of pain by nearly 50 percent after the trial period, and suggests it can help those suffering from chronic pain. The study was done on meditation from an Eastern tradition, but the principle qualities of Christian scriptural meditation — stillness, quiet and a singular mental focus — seem to be the ones in play here.

Prayer by no means has to be sedentary. God listens to those that are walking, talking, bowing, sitting, standing and even swimming if that’s your thing. Paul reminds us in I Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray continually.” That means no matter your posture, you can speak to God. Not to mention charismatic styles of worship aught to qualify as aerobic exercise anyway.

Lack of health doctrine to blame

If, for whatever reason, people of faith tend to be fatter than those without a faith, I think we can safely determine it’s not an intrinsic quality of belief that’s at the root. An earlier study performed by Purdue University in 1997 found similar results, but wondered if it was a lack of preached health doctrine instead. Pastors frequently extol the virtues of piety, abstinence and the like, but rarely physical health. Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church is among those leading the charge, and leading his congregation in a 52-week Daniel-inspired diet.

So before you forego that devotional to hit the elliptical, remember faith comes first –– but good health and good faith are not mutually exclusive.

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