Feasting (Way Too Much) Upon the Word of God

The Interwebs are abuzz with news of some research coming out of Northwestern University’s medical school which, according to lead author Matthew Feinstein, says that youth who exhibit high levels of religiosity tend to become chunkier later in life. In layman’s terms, if you send your kids to early morning seminary, you’re condemning them to a lifetime of obesity.[1]

Now, in the 35 seconds I spent researching this stuff, I couldn’t get my hands around the actual study Feinstein and his co-authors conducted, so I can’t say much about the nitty-gritty details, except that “most of the participants were women, and 41 percent were black.” While the study apparently does have some controls for income, sex, and education, it wasn’t clear from my review if the study accounted for religious affiliation which, as Mormons, is the ever-important detail (Are we fatter than the Baptists?!?). Additionally, the study explicitly did not account for geography, so cultural traditions, diet fads in SoCal, and the poundage of butter used in Southern cooking are not controlled for.

(Also not known: Were the religious people in the survey were subjected to a Redefining Beauty Program in their local congregations?)

All tendencies to equate correlation and causation aside, there were a couple of very Mormon-ish sounding ideas communicated by the authors, which I’ll mention briefly before turning the time over to you:

  1. Religious people tend drink and smoke less than our evil atheist friends; as such, we may substitute second helpings and large desserts for other commonly used substances when seeking “comfort” in our lives. This is the same sort of reasoning that would lead one to conclude that high antidepressant use in Utah is a function of the Word of Wisdom’s proscription of strong drinks. Whether the costs (obesity) outweigh the benefits (healthy lungs, white teeth) probably varies from person to person.
  2. It’s all in God’s hands/Jesus is going to return soon anyway, so carpe diem! This is an attitude which comes up frequently among LDS people when environmental policies are being discussed. If we don’t care about taking care of the planet for the future, is it that much of a stretch to imagine that we don’t take care of ourselves for the future?[2]

So what do you think? Is our religion making us fat? Would Brigham Young be disgusted with us? Should Stake Centers come equipped with treadmills? Should investigators be required to pass a physical before baptism?


[1] In other news, Linger Longers are banninated in the new Church Handbook of Instructions. Modern revelation in action, brothers and sisters.
[2] This is intentionally exaggerated and represents little more than a lame attempt to start a fight with commenters.


  1. Latter-day Guy says:

    Let your soul delight in fatness? Unless you’re getting ready to put your mission papers in, that is…

  2. So religious people are both fatter AND healthier. Lots of people will go crazy trying to figure that one out since everyone is convinced that your weight is the only sign of good/poor health. (Speaking as someone whose BMI is supposedly very healthy so I look thin but body fat percentage is high and my muscle mass is low so I get pats on the back for being healthy while people with higher BMIs but lower body fat percentage get persecuted).
    Anecdotally, in my family the two middle aged sisters who go to service the least (not at all) weigh as much or maybe more as the middle aged sister who goes to church the most (every week). So it isn’t true in our family.
    Now that work is mostly mental, I think Mormons should consider stopping “mental” work on Sundays and exercise instead.

  3. (Also not known: Were the religious people in the survey were subjected to a Redefining Beauty Program in their local congregations?)

    Ha, ha!

  4. I think I can confidently assert that we are no where near as fat as the Baptists.

  5. jks,
    When it comes to BMI, the heart doesn’t care if your overweight because you’re a body builder or overweight because you’re fat. The taxing effects on the body are the same.

  6. I would be remiss if I didn’t stand tonight and testify that this study is true. I know it is true because I’m far more spiritual and righteous than any skinny little sister in my ward.

  7. Utahns eat the most ice cream per capita. Also, they are becoming more strict about missionary applicants with extreme weight problems. But my initial reactions were the same as yours. They didn’t take into account all the things you pointed out. The Jello belt is thinner than the bible belt.

  8. mmiles,
    I don’t actually have any conclusions except to say that I don’t think the study really has any conclusions either. Perhaps if I were able to read the whole thing, I would change my mind, but until then, I just see generalities without important controls. Time shall tell!

  9. Miss Otis Regrets says:

    LOVE the Redefining Beauty comment.
    Spot on!

  10. There should be a special Episode of The Biggest Loser that is an epic battle between members of several different religious sects.

  11. Religious people are having less sex, and therefore burning less calories. Case closed.

  12. StillConfused says:

    I blame the funeral potatoes. They are nye unto death

  13. These studies are generally methodologically so broken as to support no meaningful inferences.

  14. How does stuff like this get published? I am in the wrong field

  15. #11 – I SO want to make a humorous comment, but it probably would be humorous only to me. You’re welcome.

    #6 – Ardis, FTW.

  16. “E” apparently you haven’t been to my ward. I would guess that the U.S. mormon population probably looks very similar to the overweight national average. As a people we may be fanatical about the tobacco and alcohol portion of the WOW, but so often fail completely to keep the rest of it in perspective.

  17. Chris, is your ward, by any chance, located in the “Bible belt”? I would guess that Mormons in any region look a lot like their neighbors. I live in suburban Utah, where obesity is less of a problem. My comment above was tongue-in-cheek.

  18. #17 so was mine ;) I live in both the bible and mormon belt of the Phoenix area. In my case I’ve been able to maintain a healthy lifestyle through multiple means, one of which is the WoW / healthy genes and a fast metabolism / a lucky personal craving that eats to live, not lives to eat / as well as balanced mindset of maintaining some level of athletic hobbies throughout my life starting with high school sports and later on as an adult, cardio type sports such as running, biking, swimming, snowboarding etc.

    As with any type of positive, beneficial behavior, I think it helps if you are able to make something a habit or foster a balanced physical wellness drive that eventually becomes who you are and how you think. It’s a challenge to create and maintain that kind of environment and mindset even for the most health conscious person.

  19. MikeInWeHo says:

    I know a place where obesity remains a distant horror, like malaria. My friends and I joke about being “West Hollywood Obese,” which is anyone not skinny enough to have an irregular heartbeat.

  20. Wait, why would Bro. Brigham be so mad? From post-reformation on he always looked a little fat to me (at least comparatively for those days). Wouldn’t that be a bit like the pot calling the kettle black? Oh yeah…I guess he did a lot of that.

  21. philomytha says:

    When I was a kid we had a chart in the foyer showing the progress toward our ward physical fitness goal. Now we have one showing our progress toward the ward temple attendance goal. Maybe we need to go back to a little more focus on the living.

  22. Praise the lard?

    Wait Scott, serious or no about the end of linger longers? Must have missed that one in the CHI.

  23. Here’s the link to the original study from which they drew their conclusions.

    Given that study focused on determining the relationship between childbearing and diabetes a specific design selection drove ensuring an equal population of African american women since that racial cohort is twice as likely to develop diabetes. For obvious reasons, this focused exclusively on women.

    Click to access 2990.full.pdf

    (Warning – PDF)

    The research is pulled from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study – a multicenter, observational, population-based, longitudinal cohort study designed to describe the development of risk for coronary heart disease in young black and white men and women (20,21).

    Participants were recruited from four geographic areas: Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago, Illinois; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Oakland, California.

    In 1985–1986, 5,115 subjects (2,787 women; 53% black) aged 18–30 years were enrolled. Retention rates were 86,
    81, 79, 74, and 72% of the surviving cohort at 5, 7, 10, 15, and 20 years after baseline, respectively (22,23).

    Sample selection criteria. Of 2,787 women, we excluded those at baseline who had type 1 or type 2 diabetes and/or fasting plasma glucose (FPG) = 126 mg/dl (n = 41), had a hysterectomy or removal of both ovaries (n = 24), were currently pregnant (n = 7), or were missing FPG, sociodemographic, or behavioral covariates (n = 127). We also excluded women who had not attended at least one follow-up exam (n = 180) in years 5, 7, 10, 15, or 20.

    Women excluded were more likely to be smokers, unmarried, less educated, and of black race and to have a higher BMI than the analytic sample of 2,408 women (1,226 black and 1,182 white; 86% of the original cohort). FPG measurements were obtained at baseline and follow-up at years 7, 10, 15, and 20.

  24. When it comes to BMI, the heart doesn’t care if your overweight because you’re a body builder or overweight because you’re fat. The taxing effects on the body are the same.

    That doesn’t really account for higher cholesterol levels which usually accompany obesity. Also, not all people who are in shape with a high BMI are “body builders”. The increased cardio activity associated with being in shape probably helps mitigate the taxing effects of which you speak.

    So I respectfully disagree.

    Of course I’m biased since the BMI always has me (and my friend – the recent college track runner) categorized as “Extremely Obese”.

  25. Never mind, pulled the wrong study component of the CARDIA – they say they pulled from one that included men and women.

  26. Scott B. says:

    Don’t fret B.Russ. You’re just big-boned.

  27. Scott B. says:

    That’s right–I did find that study yesterday, but noticed the exclusion. One of the links in the OP indicates that Feinstein has published previous research in this area, and I think that’s what we both found.

  28. My mom says I’m handsome.

  29. hello. Newbie Mormon and lurker here.
    What is a linger longer?
    I have noticed a few slang terms that I have no clue on. Is there a mormon/english dictionary any would recommend?

    Thank you.

  30. observer (fka eric s) says:

    This supports my long-held theory that Fat Albert and his gang are LDS (even though it doesn’t really support that theory).

  31. rsj (29),
    A linger longer is a slang term for a post-meeting meal held (typically) at the church building. Another variation on this idea is the Munch & Mingle.

  32. The medievals would be ashamed of our gluttony, and yet I will always enjoy attending a meeting with food. mmm…

    In the spirit of Isaiah 55:2, let it be known that there will be exceptions to every rule.

  33. And in defense of footnote 2, I expect the OP to have celebrated earth hour?

  34. Well, if being more religious is key to gaining weight then I’d better step up my game. I would love to tack on about twenty pounds or so.

  35. Here’s a non-scientific observation coming from someone who spent 6 years living in Utah and a couple more years living in the deep south: when it comes to obesity, the southeast clearly wins over the intermountain west Mormon Cultural Region. Although both areas have high levels of religiosity, there is another factor to consider that I think is a more potent variable: Poverty. In the U.S. there is a strong inverse relationship between obesity and poverty, and there are large pockets of poverty in most southeastern states. I suspect that the Northwestern study did not account for this variable as a covariate. I would be willing to bet that the connection between religiosity and obesity is much, much, weaker than between obesity and socioeconomic status.

  36. Okay, I’ve been to Chicago, and the huge people there make the lady in your Relief Society with squishy arms look like Mischa Barton. Everyone is SO. DAMN. FAT. It has to be the extremely greasy, unappetizing, huge-portioned food that is everywhere, and the astounding racial/class inequality.

    Including that city in the study would be like not factoring out Rahm Emanuel in a study of USA social etiquette.

    In Seattle, where I live, I want to just make everyone eat a slice of pie. They look like they haven’t had anything but PBR and maryjane for years.

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