A familiar scene to American religious worshipers is a large church gathering with happy parishioners socializing, chasing children and almost undoubtedly eating copious amounts of food from a well-laden potluck table. Several studies now suggest this focus on food is having a negative impact on the waistlines of religious people across the U.S.
Ben Hill, a psychology professor at BYU and addiction therapist for more than 30 years, said he’s known many people who have died because of their “true food addiction” and complications with heart disease, obesity, emphysema, pulmonary artery disease and other side effects from being overweight or obese.
“Our whole (Mormon) culture revolves around food. What’s interesting about addiction is that for every bad thing we can be addicted to, there’s also a good thing. We share meals in family home evenings and at church activities, which almost becomes a type of sacrament meeting. Someone gives a prayer, there’s a discussion or activity, all over food,” Hill said. “It’s very easy for it to become a go-to coping skill, especially if you’re Mormon and you don’t drink. At the end of the stressful day we might not go have some beers with the guys or hang out at the pub, but what we do is get into the chocolate or the simple carbohydrates.”
Hill said eating sugary food and carbohydrates tends to increase the dopamine in our brains, which “tinkers with the divine way God set up the brain where enjoyment is rewarding, and food addictions get reinforced.”
He also said some foods can be just as addictive as cocaine, although the caliber of the addiction is less than that of hard drugs or alcohol.
According to a 2006 study titled “Religion and Body Weight in Utah” by BYU health science professor Ray Merrill, Mormons at the time were on average 5.7 pounds heavier and 34 percent more likely to be obese than non-religious individuals in Utah. A similarly widespread study hasn’t been conducted since, but this data shows that Mormons have ways to go with adopting healthier eating habits and cutting excessive sugar out of their diets.
Not all data regarding religion and weight is negative, however. Utah’s obesity report shows that Utah has the sixth lowest obesity rate in the nation, but it’s also clear from the data that this is likely because Utah is the “youngest state” with a median population age of 30.7 years old. The 18- to 25-year-old population in Utah has an obesity rate of 8.9 percent while those aged 45–64 have an obesity rate of 33 percent.
A 2006 study titled “Does Religion Increase the Prevalence and Incidence of Obesity in Adulthood?” shows a positive correlation between certain religious practices and obesity among American Christians (particularly in the South) and a negative correlation with other practices. The study showed that “women who reported higher rates of church attendance had a lower risk of becoming obese.”
Men are also less likely to be or become obese the more they turn to religion for consolation, according to the study. The scientists hypothesized that men may turn to religion — instead of food — as a form of comfort and therefore are more likely to avoid obesity.
Some data and other experiments cited in the 2006 study shows that identifying as religious does increase a person’s likelihood of being obese, but other data shows this may be because many religious people don’t smoke (or smoke as much) as non-religious people and therefore they don’t have that appetite suppressing factor playing a part in their weight.
The 2006 study says, “People who regularly attend church, pray, or read the Bible tend to have lower blood pressure than less religious people.”
People who are religious are also hospitalized less often, are less likely to suffer from depression, have a stronger sense of well-being and life satisfaction, stronger immune systems and better longevity, according to the study.
Hill said religion and the Atonement of Jesus Christ can help people with everything in their lives, including weight loss and living a healthier lifestyle.
“We’re not flawed (when we’re struggling with weight). There are a few elements that will help people cut down on sugar and bad food,” Hill said. “The Atonement of Christ is there to clean us up and heal us up. Christ can heal our psychological wounds we might be self-medicating with food, and he will empower us. The Savior helps us help others, and the fastest way to get over addictions is through service and helping others. We become minor actors in our own plays and others become the stars.”