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Is Church Attendance A Risk Factor For Obesity?

For competitive cyclists, Sunday morning usually signifies a time for combining spirituality with calorie-burning. Whether we are immersed in the total focus of a hotly-contested bike race or meditating our way through a seemingly endless training ride, it’s a given that most cyclists use Sundays to churn out the kilo-joules.

This kind of Sunday-behavior differs significantly from many regular (normal) people, who like to sleep late, get up slowly, dress themselves nicely and amble off to church. It goes without saying that this kind of spiritual exercise doesn’t burn many calories. And it is also well known that worship and consuming high-calorie comfort food frequently go hand in hand.

In the hard-to-believe-that-people-study-this kind-of-thing category, comes a report that frequent churchgoing in young adulthood increases the risk of obesity in middle age. Really, I am not making this up. The story was reported prominently here, on the theHeart.org.

Before I give you the details of the report, let me tell you where the data come from. You are right, no one really sets out to study the long-term health impacts of regular churchgoing.

Rather, such information on religiosity comes from one of the many data-mining reports extracted from the CARDIA (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults) trial. This trial began enrolling young adults in 1986. Researchers from Birmingham, Chicago, Minneapolis and Oakland have followed more than 5000 young adults for more than 20 years. The idea was to enroll young people of diverse racial backgrounds and follow them into (and through) their mini-van-driving era.

The serially-collected data from these 5000 subjects has resulted in hundreds of publications on matters of how things like high cholesterol, body weight, exercise patterns, behavioral variables and lifestyle factors relate to heart disease in adulthood.

The details of the study: (reported as a poster presentation at the Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention and Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism 2011 Conference.)

After adjusting for other important variables (age, sex, race, BMI, etc.) the researchers found that those (2433) subjects who reported regularly attending church were 50% more likely than non-churchgoers to be obese when they reached middle-age.

Of course, this kind of data suggests only an association, not causation. In other words, the researchers can’t say going to church makes you fat. All they can say is that there is an association between churchgoing and obesity, in their cohort of 2433 subjects.

As to why this association was so strong, the authors can offer only theories. They suggest that regular churchgoers eat too many donuts, pastries, and fried fish sandwiches.

What’s my take?

Who knows. Today, I am just playing reporter. Forget about it. I’m not stepping in that kind of blog quicksand.

Though it would be interesting to compare the outcomes of Saturday night churchgoers to those who go on Sunday mornings. Surely there’s a column on the CARDIA spreadsheet with that information.

*This blog post was originally published at Dr John M*


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