Too Many Loaves, Not Enough Fishes?

A “study” released last week has been tearing up the internet, and media outlets have been loving it with sensational headlines like “Does God Make You Fat?”

Maybe it's all the Communion bread?

Give us the numbers so we can tear it apart already:

The study, which tracked 2,433 men and women for 18 years, found normal weight young adults ages 20 to 32 years with a high frequency of religious participation were 50 percent more likely to be obese by middle age after adjusting for differences in age, race, sex, education, income and baseline body mass index. High frequency of religious participation was defined as attending a religious function at least once a week.

Casey Schwartz at The Daily Beast puts it thusly:

The conclusions are based on a cohort of subjects who were examined for the first time more than 20 years ago. At the onset of the study, they were asked about their religious predilictions. They were never asked again. Their obesity rates were re-checked in 2005. Their religious habits were not. Therefore, the Northwestern research is linking religious habits as reported by a cadre of twentysomethings in 1987 with obesity rates nearly 20 years later.

That’s a good start. But it gets even stupider on further examination. This is a classic case of data dredging, looking for patterns to emerge from a huge data-set. For something to be statistically significant it must have a “p value” of < 0.05, or less than a one in twenty chance of occurring randomly. If you mine 30 or 40 variables, you are almost certain to uncover one or two that are significant, but not true. And I’m guessing that if you’re a researcher with over 20 years worth of data, you have several dozen variables from which to choose. Religious participation is just one of those.

Where's that part about gluttony?

It gets really good though when everyone begins to speculate why this would be the case: highly caloric church potlucks, fewer church-sponsored baseball and basketball games, too many social occasions that revolve around food, fat people seek out acceptance at church, food as a reward for good Christian deeds. Really? Let’s think about this a minute.

  • Potlucks and Food-Centered Social Occasions. Does one meal—one out of a potential 21+ a week—really make that much difference? Do religious people really have more friends than an atheist? Is church potluck fare really less healthy than McDonald’s? The answer to all is a resounding NO. Sister Myrna can breathe easier now that her Cinnamon Walnut Teabread is off the hook.
  • Fewer Church-Sponsored Physical Activities. How many people do you know that would say, “No more church-sponsored basketball? Well, I guess I just won’t get any exercise anymore. Pass the donuts!”
  • Fat Folks Looking for Acceptance. This would be the reverse of this study’s findings, and they claim to have proven that religious people become fat, not the other way around. This is really the only explanation I could give an iota of credit, since it does fit into the cycle of shame and forgiveness with which many people punish themselves when trying to lose weight. Jesus loves you even if you’re a little heavy, and maybe that feels like a refuge of sorts. But as an explanation for the study results? No way, José.
  • Food Rewards for Good Deeds. I thought the reward for good deeds was the avoidance of eternal damnation. Is there any evidence that rewarding people with food is unique to religious culture?

But what’s the biggest sin committed here? That these researchers are again—AGAIN— coming at this data with the assumption that a) exercise causes weight loss, b) calories in/calories out and will power are valid, and c) all that’s needed is a public service campaign. That’s right folks, they’re taking the gospel of CW to the pulpit:

“What is exciting, and why I think the overall message of the study is an optimistic one, is that by virtue of their pre-existing infrastructure and social support networks, religious groups and organizations are pretty well suited to enact health interventions for diet and exercise in a pretty efficient and effective manner,” says Feinstein, a fourth-year medical student at Northwestern. “They have a natural built-in support and follow up system which is extremely important in creating sustainable lifestyle changes.”

In fact, he and other colleagues have been working with a church on Chicago’s west side using education and nutrition education to address problems of obesity in the congregation.

So now we have researchers drawing conclusions that aren’t supported by the data from data that isn’t meaningful, then using that data to try to change people’s lives. But why bother asking questions when you think you already know the answers?

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