Science, Religion and What “Makes Us Fat.”

Lynne Murray says:

I have more affection for science than many people because, in a way, it was if not the family religion, certainly the culture I grew up in. One thing I learned from my research psychologist father along with the catechism of the scientific method was some insight into the politics of what research gets funded and what effects published articles and papers have on a scientist’s career.

Underlying beliefs cherished by a culture can become the flawed assumptions upon which inadequate science rests.

At this point in our collective hallucination about fatness we cherish the delusion (based on little or no hard science) that obesity is a disease. With total inaccuracy (and maximum hysteria) fatness has been labeled “epidemic” and the idea endorsed by otherwise sensible scientists is that this variously defined condition of obesity is caused by some exterior influence or a malfunction of some interior process.

In a way this is similar to the delusion that ageing and death are disease states that can be eliminated.

There is a tremendous payoff in feeding dearly cherished delusions. For scientists the payoff comes in research grants, public acclaim and possibly even a major payday if the research results in a patentable weight loss product.

Which brings us to the latest study making headlines along the lines of “religion makes you fat.”

The idea that something has to “make you fat” is at the root of this delusion, it can’t be normal. So this particular study decided to go after religion.

I should note for those who may think of current scientific research as being neutral, that science and organized religion have clashed for hundreds of years. Highlights of the struggle include Galileo versus the Inquisition (they showed him the torture implements and he agree to retract his statement that the earth revolved around the sun). Present day conflicts include teaching or banning the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution in schools.

It’s pretty clear to me at least that many scientists would dearly love an opportunity to stick it to organized religion, and what better way than to claim that it makes you fat?

Fat is, of course, the visible manifestation of moral failure in our culture, so it’s the scientific equivalent of saying: Religion = Fat = Fail.

Young adults who frequently attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age as young adults with no religious involvement, according to new Northwestern Medicine research. This is the first longitudinal study to examine the development of obesity in people with various degrees of religious involvement.
Religious Young Adults Become Obese By Middle Age,” Marla Paul

The study itself is seriously flawed. Pendragon points out ” This is such a classic example of causation not equaling correlation that you could probably use it in a textbook…”

Casey Schwarz in The Daily Beast nails the study’s central flaw —

[I]t’s not clear what this study really tells us. 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 twenty-somethings in 1987 with obesity rates nearly 20 years later. This opens the door to a whole host of alternative variables that could explain the study’s findings. “Does Religion Really Make You Fat?”

Just in case someone is cherishing the illusion that this is about health, the Paul article dispels that notion:

The authors caution that their findings should only be taken to mean people with frequent religious involvement are more likely to become obese, and not that they have worse overall health status than those who are non-religious. In fact, previous studies have shown religious people tend to live longer than those who aren’t religious in part because they tend to smoke less.

“We don’t know why frequent religious participation is associated with development of obesity, but the upshot is these findings highlight a group that could benefit from targeted efforts at obesity prevention,” said Matthew Feinstein, the study’s lead investigator and a fourth-year student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

There’s a “ka-ching” moment for you. Once again the medical community is ignoring its own research and writing a prescription for dieting: “It’s never been proven to work, but we’re suggesting that you diet. After all, it’s not like you’ll sue us for malpractice.”

That perception is correct. Even though “targeted efforts at obesity prevention” have been proven to be ineffective they are still standard medical practice.

In point of fact, a number of churches already offer weight loss programs, and the small industry aimed at providing materials for Christian dieters has been described by Princeton University Professor of Religion R. Marie Griffith in a 2004 scholarly book, Born Again Bodies.

The review comments that

[I]t’s not a Christian diet book, but rather a history and critique of the Christian diet industry that sprung up in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Among the contemporary Christian weight loss programs discussed are Tennessee-based Weigh Down Workshop founded by Gwen Shamblin, author of The Weigh Down Diet, Houston-based First Place, and books like Slim for Him, More of Jesus, Less of Me, Fed Up with Fat, and Health Begins in Him.

It’s for fat activists to point out how little concern is shown about fat people’s health when it comes to offering positive preventive services that have actual, measurable benefits.

In a comment to a post on The Society Pages, Marilyn Wann states:

In the U.S., people are taller, weigh more, are healthier, and are living longer than ever. As a culture, we are choosing to freak out about fatness.

I became an activist because I was denied health insurance based on my weight alone. I have never heard anyone who handwrings about so-called “obesity” say one word about the health impact of leaving fat people like me out in the cold to die. … I refuse to believe that people care about my health or wellbeing, or the health and wellbeing of fat people, when they can’t even be bothered to notice that we’re denied access to basic medical screenings and treatments, like, say annual Pap smears or antibiotics when we happen to need them.

Maybe someone is studying the effects of denying health care to fat people, but it’s not making headlines.

Given the current climate of blame and hostility, scientists and religious groups seem to agree on one thing: an academic can boost a career with research looking for someone or something to blame for the very existence of fat people, and diet book mongers can rake in cash by tailoring a plan for to religious groups.