According to a new study by Northwestern University's School of Medicine, young adults who attend religious activities once a week or more are 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age than their non-church-going peers.
Previous studies had established a correlation between religious involvement and obesity, but this is the first time that researchers have established religious involvement as a contributing cause of weight gain. By tracking participants' weight over time and adjusting for differences in age, race, sex, education, income, and baseline body mass index, the Northwestern team was able to show that "normal weight younger adults with high religious involvement became obese, rather than obese adults becoming more religious."
What they haven't figured out is why that should be the case. According to Matthew Feinstein, the study's lead investigator:
We don't know why frequent religious participation is associated with development of obesity, but the upshot is these findings highlight a group that could benefit from targeted efforts at obesity prevention. 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.
The authors are quick to add that religious involvement is also associated with a range of positive health outcomes. In fact, previous studies have found that people who go to church frequently tend to live longer than those who aren't religious, smoke and drink less, and benefit from stronger social ties. Rather than turning people from their faith, Feinstein's hope is that churches will respond to these results by creating nutrition and exercise programs for their congregations:
Here's an opportunity for religious organizations to initiate programs to help their congregations live even longer. The organizations already have groups of people getting together and infrastructures in place that could be leveraged to initiate programs that prevent people from becoming obese and treat existing obesity.
UPDATE: Reader Emily Hamburg replied to this post with comment that "You can't prove that one event causes another without a plausible mechanism!" While I admit that I don't know the accepted criteria for "causation" or a "plausible mechanism" among scientists, in this case the researchers do suggest a mechanism, and it seems plausible to me. Lead researcher Matthew Feinstein explained that, "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."