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How churches could turn the obesity epidemic around

POSTED: November 2, 2017 10:41 p.m.
Jennifer Graham/

Pastor Steven Reynolds preaches during a service at Capital Baptist Church in Annandale, Virginia, on Oct. 22, 2017. Reynolds has written a book titled "Bod4God" after losing 130 pounds following a diagnosis of diabetes and started a program at his church encouraging healthy living. He is a proponent of "body stewardship," the idea that the moral life requires care of our physical body.

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To find a solution to America's obesity epidemic, public health officials might consider a visit to the Rev. Steve Reynolds' church in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

And taking a look at the two scales sitting outside the pastor's office.

On a recent Sunday morning, that's where people weighed in before going to the sanctuary to hear Reynolds, a former “temple trasher” who has lost more than 100 pounds, deliver a message on the virtues of good health.

It's not unusual for churches and other places of worship to allow Weight Watchers or Overeaters Anonymous to use their facilities for meetings. But Reynolds doesn’t outsource his congregation’s health. He's written a book called "Bod4God" and has made weight loss a central part of his ministry.

Since Reynolds started preaching about the importance of honoring God by taking care of your body, members of Capital Baptist Church in Annandale, Virginia, and the surrounding community have collectively lost 13 tons of weight. Their success shows that one solution to the nation's obesity epidemic could be hiding under its steeples.

Health officials have long known that people who belong to denominations that have established health codes, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, tend to be healthier than the general population.

And a growing body of research suggests that people are more likely to lose weight if they are motivated by spiritual values instead of secular values, such as the desire to look better in a bathing suit.

There are more than 350,000 churches in the U.S., and the impact that houses of worship could have on the nation's health is significant, according to the authors of one recent study about how religious beliefs affect weight-loss success.

"Qualitative studies of church-affiliated black people have shown that believing that one’s body is a temple of God was related to engagement in healthy behaviors" such as abstaining from alcohol, tobacco and drugs, the report said.

Moreover, pastors are preaching each Sunday to the very people who most need to lose weight. Churchgoers are more likely to be overweight than non-churchgoers, and obesity among pastors is rising, researchers at Baylor University have found.

Two recently published studies have shown that much illness and disease in the U.S. is preventable if Americans could lose weight and exercise more. Four out of 10 types of cancer are associated with being overweight or obese, one study found. Another concluded that 35 percent of chronic illness and disease are connected to inactivity.

Yet three-quarters of us are overweight or obese, frustrating public-health officials who watch the numbers inch up each year despite costly federal interventions like Michelle Obama's "Let's Move."

To make a difference, churches have to expand their concept of stewardship to include not just money or the environment, but health.

To inspire and persuade

In a special report on obesity published earlier this year in Harvard Public Health, editor Madeline Drexler said turning the tide of obesity would require an "inspired agenda" carried out by masters of "the art of persuasion."

Who better to inspire and persuade than a pastor who has struggled with his weight and health?

Reynolds, a grandfather of five, said weight has been an issue for most of his life. “I weighed over 100 pounds in the first grade, when an average kid weighs 52,” he said.

He later played football in high school and college, and the workouts helped to keep his weight down, but when Reynolds “kept eating like a football player” after college, the weight shot back up.

“I got up to almost 350 pounds, and had high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes,” he said.

The diabetes diagnosis woke him up to the danger he was facing. “My deal is, I want to live. I look forward to heaven, but I’m just not in a hurry to get there,” he said.

Reynolds said he began praying about his health and asking God what to do, and the answer came back to do what he often tells his congregation to do about problems: Look for answers in the Bible.

Reynolds began studying the Bible to see what it has to say about health, and he counted the word “body” 179 times. Using biblical principles — chief among them, that the body is the temple of God and should be respected — he eventually lost 130 pounds. “I call it (the Bible) the greatest health book in the world,” he said.

Reynolds said he believes that pastors have both the opportunity and a responsibility to help people in their congregations achieve healthy weights and optimal health.

Every year, his church holds a weight-loss competition that is open to the public and includes small-group sessions on Sunday nights for support. Also, Reynolds makes it a point to deliver a sermon at least once a year about the importance of health.

The power of values

In his own weight loss journey, Reynolds inadvertently adopted a strategy that is backed by science.

When it comes to losing weight, we're more likely to succeed if we believe our efforts serve a greater purpose, according to the Harvard Public Health report on obesity.

"Public health messaging that appeals to values that transcend the individual is less fraught, less stigmatizing and perhaps more effective," Drexler wrote.

Authors of a report published in the October issue of the peer-reviewed journal Preventing Chronic Disease reached a similar conclusion.

Researchers surveyed 240 African-American women who were members of six black churches. They concluded that programs promoting "positive, faith-based attitudes about the body" were the most effective way to encourage women to lose weight and improve chronic health conditions like diabetes and hypertension.

That has been the experience of Detra Watson, a 46-year-old teacher who is currently leading the weight-loss contest at Reynolds' church.

Watson, who once weighed more than 300 pounds, got serious about losing weight after a doctor told her she was at risk for getting cancer. She lost 50 or so pounds on a diet that involved protein shakes, but had not lost any more until she heard Reynolds speak on the radio and decided to enter the contest.

“It’s changed my life,” Watson said. At her most recent weigh-in, she’d lost 5.2 pounds in a week.

What made the difference, she said, was switching the emphasis from herself to God.

“I’d been missing the spiritual component in my weight-loss journey. I’d lost a significant amount on my own, but I needed scriptural foundational pieces to make it, for people to pray for me.”

Watson is doing more than praying and reading scripture.

In addition to exercising four times a week, she’s eating a primarily raw vegan diet. “For lunch, I usually consume raw veggies with avocado, quinoa, hummus or some other vegan protein. For dinner, I try to eat before 8 o’clock, and I might consume vegetable broth, salad or some other light vegan meal. I try not to overdo it on the nuts,” she said.

Watson has not joined Capital Baptist — she’s happy in her own church and hopes to help start a similar group there some day. “The goal is not for me to have this perfect body, but for me to take care of this body that God has blessed me with,” she said.

Healthful eating

Dan Buettner is an author and researcher who writes about “Blues Zones,” the areas of the world with the longest-lived people. Among them is Loma Linda, California, where low rates of chronic disease and obesity are often attributed to the Seventh-day Adventist faith that about one-third of its residents profess.

In addition to discouraging alcohol and tobacco use, the church promotes exercise and vegan or vegetarian diets. Consequently, the average Seventh-day Adventist weighs 20 pounds less than the average person of other faiths, Buettner said.

“Why does it work? First of all, in their early scriptures, health is a value,” Buettner said. “In so many other churches, health isn’t important.”

He pointed to Southern churches, which often hold gatherings featuring comfort food, and his own faith tradition, Roman Catholic, in which food is rarely addressed unless doughnuts are being served after Mass.

Another reason Seventh-day Adventists are healthier is that they tend to hang out with other Adventists, “and we know health behaviors like diets are contagious in social networks,” Buettner said.

“Another ritual in their week is a nature walk on Saturday afternoon. That’s as proscribed as showing up to church,” he said.

The Word of Wisdom found in LDS scripture contains many of the commandments in the Seventh-day Adventists’ eight laws of health, but neither address weight directly. A century ago, this wouldn’t have seemed an omission; it’s only in the past few decades that a majority of Americans became overweight.

Churches have been slow to start talking about health, but that’s changing, Buettner said. “They are coming to realize they can be powerful forces in getting their congregations healthier,” he said.

Body discomfort

If the Bible is a health book, as Reynolds says, this aspect has been overlooked by many Christians until recently. Most often, the body has been seen as unimportant, or worse, a hindrance to a person's spiritual life, said the Rev. Melanie Dobson, a United Methodist pastor in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the author of "Health as a Virtue: Thomas Aquinas and the Practice of Habits of Health."

“Christianity was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, which had a lot of dualism in it, with the body always being less and the soul being more elevated. This was embraced by the earliest Christians. It was in the air they were breathing; it’s still in the air that we breathe. There was profound discomfort with the body in early Christianity. It’s still with us,” Dobson said.

Ellie Roscher, director of youth and story development at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, says there has long been a pervasive “disembodiment” among people of faith, which she talks about in a chapter she wrote for “Beyond the Offering Plate," a new book about holistic stewardship.

“Overeating and underexercising both are signals of disembodiment, of not tending to our bodies, of ignoring our bodies, not being aware of them,” Roscher said.

“Few theologians read the Bible with the lens of bodies. However, if you read it closely, I think it’s so clear that both God and Jesus deeply believe in bodies and think that bodies matter.”

The evidence, she says, is all over the Bible, beginning in Genesis.

“From the creation story — God takes time and care to create humans — to Psalm 139, God knitting us, God knowing how many hairs are on our head, these are things that point to me that God cares about our bodies. Of course, the most extreme example is that God chose to take on a body so that God knew the experience.”

Ending the silence

One reason that so many pastors are reticent about speaking on matters of health and weight is that they themselves struggle with these issues. "Clergy have the worst health outcomes of any profession," Dobson said.

The Clergy Health Initiative of Duke Divinity School found that more than 60 percent of pastors are overweight or obese and that clergy suffer from chronic health conditions at rates greater than the general population.

When a pastor such as Reynolds — or the Rev. Rick Warren of California-based Saddleback Church — confronts his own health issues, however, he becomes not just a teacher but an inspiration.

Warren's battles with his weight resulted in a best-selling diet book, the Daniel Plan. Earlier this year, a pair of Connecticut pastors held a friendly contest to see which one could lose the most weight before Easter, providing inspiration for their congregations as they shed pounds.

But pastors don't have to diet to make a difference.

In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., two prominent pastors recently filed suit against Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association, charging that soda makers deceived customers about the health risks of their products. “We’re losing more people to the sweets than to the streets,” the Rev. Delman Coates of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Maryland told The Washington Post.

In Charlotte, Dobson is teaching yoga as part of her ministry at Myers Park United Methodist Church. In a blog and a weekly class, she incorporates Bible verses into the practice of yoga, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorses as a form of moderate activity that should be done every week.

Of course, despite their longstanding ambivalence toward the body, churches and church leaders have a long history as providers of health care. St. Basil is credited with starting the first hospitals in the 4th century, and John Wesley, founder of the United Methodist Church, opened free medical clinics in England.

As in the past, talking about health — and even better, doing something about it — can be an effective outreach program for today’s churches, said Reynolds, the Virginia pastor who lost weight and reversed his hypertension and high cholesterol by focusing on portion control and working out at a gym.

“I tell pastors, ‘Let’s break the silence. Let’s talk about it,'" he said.

Added Roscher in Minneapolis, “I would love to see churches being used for yoga, for getting your flu shot, renting space for healing massage. It speaks volumes who you allow to be inside your building.

“Outside of worship, churches are under-utilizing their gifts,” she said.
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