Last week this blog addressed the issue of obesity and the possibility that it could be reduced with breastfeeding. Continuing with the topic of obesity, there is a recent study put out by the American Heart Association (and reported by Medical News Today) that is sure to stir up some controversy. The authors of that study claim there is a link between religious activities during young adulthood and obesity later on in life. While I am usually reluctant to belittle medical research, this study really has me scratching my head and asking, “Who cares?” Before anyone decides to skip church this weekend, let’s look at the details of the study.
The study was actually a long-term study with a high number of participants, which generally tends to give clearer answers than short-term studies with fewer participants:
The study, involving 32,433 individuals from the longitudinal CARDIA (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults), aged from 20 to 32 years initially, were monitored for 18 years.
However, even with a high number of participants, I am very leery of the results of this study and what it has to do with our health. In terms of what the study found, the authors claim 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 to those who had no religious commitments.” As everyone knows, obesity is just one factor that can impact a person’s overall health and life expectancy. As the authors of the study recognize, there are a number of factors that can influence heart health – blood pressure, obesity, smoking status, diabetes, high cholesterol. Obesity was the only factor that appeared to be linked to religious activity. The other factors did not appear to have any link.
Why just obesity? It is impossible to answer. Personally, I have a difficult time understanding any possible link between religious activities and obesity, and the study does not actually answer the question of what it is about religious services that may lead to obesity. They theorize that perhaps church activities tend to be more sedentary (more so than watching television or playing computer games?) or that perhaps it is the church get-togethers that have an abundance of fatty foods. However, sedentary activities and poor food choices permeate our entire society and are not restricted to religious people. So why would religious activity be associated with obesity? The authors don’t say, which leaves a gaping hole on the question of what are we supposed to do with this information. Are the authors suggesting it would be healthier to skip that once-a-week church event?
Recognizing that the study’s claim could be construed that church is causing people to get fat, the authors point out that overall, religious people are quite healthy (is anyone surprised?). Furthermore, the authors don’t actually advocate skipping church to lose weight.
The investigators stress that their study does not prove in any way that going to church, attending mass or other religious services makes you fat.
If that’s the case, then I wonder what is the purpose of reporting the study. Usually a medical study into an aspect of health will carry some recommendation of a behavioral change, e.g., avoid saturated fats, get more Vitamin D, etc. With this religion study, there is no recommendation for a change in behavior and there is no explanation for why religious activity would be problematic in terms of health. So all we’re left with is a possible statistical association with no answers as to why and no call for a change in behavior. Which takes me back to my original thought — who cares? If a study has no answers and no recommendations, then perhaps the study didn’t need to see the light of day.
I would also point out that other studies have looked at the link between religion and health and found that regular religious activity actually improves health and leads to longer life expectancy. However, that study also could not explain the specific reasons for its conclusions. Such studies are notoriously difficult to conduct because they are observational only rather than studies where the researchers can control external factors. There are so many factors that go into one’s overall health that it is difficult to single out any one activity as being blame-worthy, especially one as nebulous as attending a church activity once per week.
One encouraging — if simplistic — aspect of the study is that it may cause some churches to include a message of nutrition and exercise for their congregation. But did we really need a long-term study with thousands of participants to tell us that? We should all eat better and exercise more, regardless of our religious affiliation or preferences.
I would be curious to hear from our readers whether they think this claim has any merit or not, and what the reason for the alleged link may be. And the choir said, Amen! What say you?