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Research Finds Religious Involvement Impacts Women’s Body Mass

January 3, 2019

by Kara Irby, University Communications


At left: Sociology Associate Professor Amy Burdette (FSU Photo/Bill Lax)

According to Florida State University researchers, black women in the United States who attend church regularly tend to have greater body mass compared to white women with the same amount of religious involvement.

The findings, by Associate Professor of Sociology Amy Burdette and recent FSU graduates Dawn Godbolt and Preeti Vaghela, were published in a new study in the Journal of Religion and Health.

Researchers found that as church attendance increased for white women, their body mass either remained unchanged or decreased, which means religious attendance was a protective factor for that group. For black women, it was the opposite — as religious attendance increased, so did a woman’s body mass.

“There are many reasons why this could be,” Burdette said. “Many scholars have pointed out that black and white churches are two different social institutions. In many cases they are still very segregated, play different roles and have different types of services.”

Researchers did not find any association between religious attendance and body mass among men, regardless of race.

The study used data from the 2006-2008 Health and Retirement Study, which surveyed more than 11,000 participants age 50 and older within the United States. Participants completed face-to-face interviews that included physical measurements.

Scholars examined body mass index as well as waist circumference and waist-to-height ratios. For every measure, they found higher averages for black women than white women. Black survey participants also attended church more frequently.

Church attendance was measured with five categories ranging from none to more than once a week. Researchers found every level of increased church attendance among black women resulted in nearly a one-point increase in BMI.

“Our findings suggest that the generally positive effects of religious involvement on health may not extend to all subpopulations,” Burdette said. “Overall, attending church is good for your health and related to reduced mortality and better health behaviors. However, these findings indicate a possible need for health interventions in predominantly black churches.”

Burdette said future research could include other racial groups like Hispanic women, examine the influence of church attendance on the body mass of younger populations and include qualitative interviews to better understand the connection between religious involvement and body mass.