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March 1998

FIRM BELIEVERS MORE LIKELY TO BE FLABBY, PURDUE STUDY FINDS WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. ã A Purdue University study of religion and body weight finds that religious people are more likely to be overweight than are nonreligious people.

Sociology Professor Kenneth Ferraro found the correlation between being overweight and being religious was statistically significant regardless of a person's choice of faith. The findings, published in the March issue of the journal Review of Religious Research, came from analyzing data collected in two national surveys.

"The religious lifestyle has long been considered a healthy one, with its constraints on sexual promiscuity, alcohol and tobacco use," Ferraro says. "However, overeating may be one sin that pastors and priests regularly overlook. And as such, many firm believers may have not-so-firm bodies."

But Ferraro says religion may curtail some of the unhealthy effects of being overweight. "What appears to be happening is a counterbalancing effect," he says. "Religious adults report higher levels of well-being. In general, obese persons are more likely to be depressed and dissatisfied with their health, but among religious persons, weight had no effect on well-being."

Ferraro says he doesn't think religions intentionally promote higher body weight, but two factors may be at work. "American churches are virtually silent on excess body weight, despite a Biblical dictate for moderation in all things," he says. "In the Book of Proverbs, gluttony is listed with drunkenness as a sign of moral weakness, but few religious groups have any proscriptions against overeating."

At the same time, he points out, most religions promote acceptance. "Overweight people may find comfort in religious settings. Temples, synagogues and churches may provide an important source of acceptance in the midst of a society that highly values fit bodies," Ferraro says.

Ferraro utilized a 1993 state-by-state comparison of data collected from public records by the MicroCase Corp. Among the measures identified were levels of obesity and religious memberships. Ferraro's study also included a 1990 survey funded by the National Institute on Aging called Americans' Changing Lives. That national poll questioned 3,617 people age 25 years and older.

In state-by-state comparisons, Ferraro found the percentage of obesity highest in states where religious affiliation was more prevalent. Michigan, Mississippi and Indiana were among the states with the highest percentage of overweight persons. Likewise, obesity figures were lower in states that had the least number of religious persons. Those states included Massachusetts, Hawaii and Colorado.

Ferraro's study analyzed many factors related to obesity. "When you consider other theoretically relevant variables, religiosity is still associated with a higher proportion of obesity in all 50 states," he says.

The Americans' Changing Lives survey was broken down according to different religious denominations. It also included information on nonreligious persons. Height and weight were self- reported by those polled, and the results were analyzed using a standard body mass index. "Given that heavier people tend to underestimate their weight when reporting it, the relationship between religion and body weight may actually be stronger than what we reported," he says.

Being overweight was a tendency across all religious beliefs. "Baptists tended to be the heaviest, with Jewish, Moslem and Buddhist groups the least overweight," he says. "However, when we controlled for social class, ethnicity and marital status, the denominational differences in body weight were not significant."

Ferraro says the connection between obesity and health is a growing national concern. "Public health officials are trying to figure out why our society is getting fatter. Average adult body weight has gone up at the same time that sales of athletic footwear and the numbers of aerobics classes have also increased," he says.

Ferraro says the finding that religion and obesity may counterbalance each other is also important. "Next, I would like to do a longitudinal study to see whether religion's sense of well-being keeps people healthier or whether the unhealthy effects of obesity eventually cause people's general health to decline," he says.

Source: Kenneth Ferraro, (765) 494-4707; e-mail, [email protected]

Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; home, (765) 497-7102; e- mail, [email protected]