Friday, April 08, 2011

Mormons are Healthier but Fatter

A series of studies have shown that religious people tend to be more overweight than nonreligious people and that Latter-Day Saints tend to be more overweight than members of other religions. In this Deseret News article author Michael De Groote briefly explores the studies and what they mean.

Researchers have linked the sense of wellbeing that accompanies religious devotion with being satisfied with one's body. De Groote writes, "In other words, religious people feel so good about themselves that they don't notice the fat as much."

Most religions promote a somewhat healthier lifestyle than is common in the broader culture. Some religions have rather austere health codes. Latter-Day Saints in good standing adhere to proscriptions on tobacco, alcohol, tea, coffee, and drug misuse embodied in the Word of Wisdom as defined in the church's scriptures and teachings of its leaders. When a church member is asked if he/she lives the Word of Wisdom, most Latter-Day Saints interpret this to embody only the prohibitions mentioned above.

However, the actual Word of Wisdom in D&C 89 includes a lot of do's along with the don'ts. For example, all food and drink is to be "used with prudence and thanksgiving" (v11), meat should be used "sparingly" and under certain conditions (v11-13,15), and herbs, grains, fruits and vegetables are "good for the food of man" when used properly (v11,14,16,17).

The reality today is that failing to adhere to the WoW's do's will not keep a church member from holding a leadership calling or entering the Temple, while violation of the don'ts will. In essence, church members can be gluttons and/or eat a generally awful diet without being though of as unworthy. But using tobacco, tea, coffee and alcohol, and misuse of drugs are among the activities that make members unworthy.

LDS culture has a deep relationship with food. We use food for recreation. Refreshments heavily laden with fat and refined sugars are regularly served at church activities.  We share recipes for creative treats.  We use food for comfort. We serve decadent funeral potatoes and other unhealthy delicacies at funeral luncheons. We specialize in taking in meals to families dealing with illness or tragedy.

Is it any wonder that many rank and file Latter-Day Saints have an emotional relationship with food outside of church settings?

We also tend to seek to be emulate others with whom we spend time. The more time we spend in church and social settings with overweight people, the more likely we are to become overweight ourselves. It is a cultural effect.

Despite being more overweight than their nonreligious counterparts, Latter-Day Saints tend to live longer and healthier lives (see 4/13/2010 Deseret News article). In fact, practicing Latter-Day Saints live longer than any generally long-lived ethnic group (i.e. Japanese and Swedes).

Researchers say that these differences cannot be fully explained by differences in physical activity, diet, and use of harmful substances. There is apparently a psychological component to LDS religious devotion that tends to enhance health and longevity. But this same element may lend to Latter-Day Saints doing a worse job at battling the bulge.

Frankly, it is odd for the members a religion that prides itself on its health guidelines to have such a problem with excess weight. Studies show that waist-to-hip ratio has been used across cultures and time to quickly and subconsciously judge general health. When church members are generally overweight, this sends a contradictory message about LDS health teachings and practices even at a casual glance.

Having been overweight myself, I know how challenging it can be to return to normal weight. Many physical, cultural, and psychological elements are marshaled against achieving such a goal. I can't help but wonder if Latter-Day Saints would better manage their weight if this had as great of focus as the don'ts in the Word of Wisdom.

Still, while I work hard to live the Word of Wisdom to my best understanding and what actually works for me, I believe that it pales in importance to things like developing a positive relationship with God and loving and serving one's fellow beings. LDS health is an interesting subject, but I try not to get too hung up on it.

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