Busted Halo

Paulist seminarian Tom Gibbons reflects on his formation experience and his life as a seminarian right now. Along the way, some questions will be will be answered, and a lot more will come up.

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April 2nd, 2011

My Big Fat Spiritual Life


The scene: 10 eighth-grade religious education students, their teacher, and yours truly—a plucky seminarian who was brought in for “Vocation Awareness Day.”  I talk, explaining the many ways we can all serve God in our lives, and that religious life is one of those ways — a very good way… yada, yada, yada.  Are there any questions?  A hand goes up.  I graciously call on the inquisitive young child.

“Why are priests always so fat?”

It is important to note that there was still some sugar on my shirt from the doughnut I had just scarfed down after Mass… black clothes do a terrible job of hiding sugar.  It is also important to note that the previous evening I had more than my fare share of Texas Barbecue at an establishment known as “The Salt Lick” and I can only guess as to how much brisket my system was still digesting.  The morning before that I delighted in a jalapeno-and-cheese sausage breakfast burrito.  At this point, I had gained eight pounds since arriving at my pastoral assignment with four months to go.  That’s in addition to the ten pounds I had gained since joining religious life.

KS_Priest_HotDog_CROPWhile I cannot claim to ever being known as a svelte human being, I have at times found it hard not to wince when looking at some of the “before” and “after” pictures from the last five years; specifically, the increased number of pixels it currently takes to adequately render a digital representation of my being.  I did a quick calculation of the number of pounds I have gained per year since joining the Paulists.  I eventually figured that if I continued at this pace, twenties years into my priesthood I would be decorating my lair with space smugglers encased in carbonite and telling young Jedi that their mind tricks will not work on me.

But of course, it is not just me.  AND it is not just those of us who are in religious life.  As it turns out, a recent study has been released that there is actually a statistical link between church attendance and obesity.  According to the article published by Technorati:

The study tracked 2,433 men and women for 18 years. Young adults ages 20 to 32, with a high frequency of religious participation, were 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age, according to the findings. A high frequency of religious participation was defined as attending a religious activity at least once a week.

Which is odd in its own way… after all, here we are in the season of Lent, which is supposed to be all about fasting, self-denial in order to focus our souls on higher things than a meat lovers pizza, and then every gathering at church focuses around food.  Lots of food.

Here is the link about the study.  What I’d be really interested in is what you think is the reason this is so.  Why is there a connection between weight and church attendance?  Is it because some people confuse holiness with donuts?  (You know… because they have holes… Okay, I’ll stop).  In the meantime, I am going to comfort myself with Luke 5:33, the passage in which when some people ask Jesus why “the disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and the disciples of the Pharisees do the same; but yours eat and drink.”  I’ll be having a Diet Dr. Pepper during my meditation.

The Author : Fr. Tom Gibbons
Since 2009, Tom Gibbons, CSP, has shared insights on faith, pop culture, and seminary life in the Kicking and Screaming blog here at Busted Halo. On May 19, 2012, Tom was ordained a Paulist priest at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City. He will begin serving St. Peter's Catholic Church in Toronto, Canada beginning in July 2012.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Brother Mark

    Lent Fish Fry at a parish, your not allowed to go home hungry. There is sometimes more then enough food to feed an african village for a year.
    Most churches don’t have the audacity to even get people to think of fasting rather then fulfilling a bare minimal obligation.
    i will be looking forward to going to church on sunday because there is always donuts afterwards.
    i think a young group might find church more attractive if it actually wasn’t always about donuts and cake potlucks.

  • Tony

    I saw a prayer in church that I think is particularly appropiate. “Dear God, this year I ask you to make my body thin and my wallet fat. And please don’t mix it up like you did last year.

  • Liz C

    So, a few things:
    a) I am rather disappointed in the overall lack of critical analysis given to this article, Mr. Gibbons, given that you usually have some insightful stuff to say.
    b)even at Northwestern University’s website, there is not much more said about their methodology. It says that they adjusted for factors such as baseline BMI, age, race, and economic status, which is all well and good, but do not mention *how* they have come to their stated conclusions.
    c) I would like to note that according to some sources, about a third of the nation is now in the “obese” category. This, combined with the fact that “frequent” is define as once a week attendance would lead one to believe that it’s not so much a function of faith based activity, rather it could just be the way that the population is spread.

    In any case, I would like to point out that the article states that obesity shouldn’t be conflated with unhealthy, something we should ALL remember when reading these articles. I would also like to point out that the article, as well as Mr. Gibbons, only point to eating habits as contributors to weight gain. Specifically, Mr. Gibbons and the article seem to think that food is the only culprit or factor explaining weight gain in a faith congregation. This not only leads to the conclusion that food is bad (which is never a good idea to put in people’s heads) but that food choices ought to be moralized.

    Food is not an option. The types of food that you consume are an option.

    Finally, I would like to point out that there are three components that are the hallmarks of Lent: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Fasting may not always be from foods that are “bad” for us (oh, how we moralize!), but rather a discipline of appreciating the ways in which our bodies react to nourishment. Fasting calls to mind and bodily represents our longing for the Eucharist, and our longing for Christ. Almsgiving and prayer are just as important in this season of Lent and are not exactly about self-denial. To emphasize in Lent our dietary effacement is to contribute to the climate of disordered eating that is plaguing our society.

  • carrie

    because its the culture and the religion. we arent taught in church that our bodies are a temple in the eating sense. we are gluttonous in every sense of the word. eating is a huge problem in my family and when i tell my mother we shouldnt be eating just because we are bored, everyone in our family is unhealthy, just because we arent 500 lbs doesnt mean its ok for us to be fat and God doesnt approve of our prioritizing of food. she just laughs it off and says things like ‘well He’ll forgive me’. this is the attitude of most christians ive met. most of the churches ive been to focus on hot topics, and in general are hypocritical. even the seemingly ‘hardcore’ christians go home and take no thought to all the little everyday cultural ‘okays’ like over eating, sitting in front of the tv, etc. gluttony & sloth i believe are our true worst sins because WE TAKE THEM SO LIGHTLY. lust we talk about all the time as something to not be a part of, but put down the hamburger? oh no! cause its ‘not hurting anybody’. when of course in reality its hurting you, your family, your country and the world. it makes me sad to be lumped in with the majority of christians because they all nod and say amen on sunday but dont APPLY any of God’s Word to their life, just accept what their pastor tells them and do no digging of their own. our new god is food and football and learning as little as possible about anything, especially our own religion. my sister is doing a bible study where they go back and analyze what what going on in history at the time of biblical events so words and happenings have a whole DEEPER CONTEXT than what we literally read in the bible today. example: the woman who touched Jesus’ robe and was healed – at that time Jews put tassels on each corner of their robe so when they walked, the tassel would fly out and they would be reminded to obey the commandments. i think we today just say ‘we believe Jesus died for our sins and nothing else is technically required to get into heaven so we dont have to actually try to live a holy life’. its not required from God to obey all His old testament/Jewish ‘rules’ but it helps us lead a better life, such as NOT EATING CERTAIN FOODS. i really hope there will be a revival of some kind in christians where they become ACTIVE. not just sit around and only get riled up over abortion or evolution. their are no small sins. to God the sin of abortion is the same as a lie, BOTH would not allow is into heaven. only humans put levels of ‘bad’ on our sins. they are all the same, just like God forgives us for any sin when we come and confess to Him.

    sorry for the rant, but i just wish christians would wake up and stop being the poster children for gluttony and laziness. we are physically and spiritually unhealthy and ignorant. im afraid i’ll never live to see the day that changes.

  • Mary Ann

    I think that priests are under a lot of stress and many people eat when they are stressed, and usually not carrot sticks. So if you eat when you get stressed and you are a diocesan priest trying to shepherd a large, diverse flock, you might have an eating issue, hence a weight issue. Our pastor is currently in St. Louis learning how to eat healthier and manage his other health problems. He has lost 66.6 lbs and hopefully will be coming home on April 15.
    Maybe parishes should think about providing healthier food choices at parish functions. It would benefit their priest and their fellow parishioners.

  • Mike Carlon

    What is it with Paulists and their fascination with food? Stop hanging with Fr Dave and you may shed a few pounds. Seriously, love the blog and your tone.


  • Sanchez

    I can only speak from my own experience: I would go to more functions at church if it weren’t for the food. I know that the food served at various social events at church will be unhealthy, and I know that it will be hard for me to resist it, so I just flat don’t go. That said, my pastor is a beanpole.

  • Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft

    I’m not sure if the study is legit or not but I can completely understand how priests (or anyone else that regularly attends church stuff) gain weight over the years from church events. Most church events involve a potluck component. When I make food for a big group, my concern is that they like it and a fool-proof way to make something taste good is to make sure it is laden with butter or sugar or is fried. Even though I, in general, try to cook healthy foods here at home, all that goes out the window when I want other people to like my food. My concern at a church function is to make something tasty rather than to count other people’s calories for them. (I’m not proud of this) So if a priest’s day is full of these potlucky events and they eat in order not to be rude (and because it’s super hard to turn down someone’s cookies or chips and queso), then of course they’re going to gain weight. Not that I think it’s good of me to make fatty foods for church but I wanted throw this out there from a cooking point of view.

  • Matt and Vanessa Houston

    Tom, great article! email me when you get a chance. i have a question for you.

  • William Grogan

    I don’t buy this. America has an obesity problem that covers every aspect of our culture, from poor to rich, well educated and not. How a study can claim to find that church goers are heavier eludes me. Some unkind thoughts of mine come to mind. How about more church goers begin to exercise more humility. Cut down on meat products that, for the most part, are derived from inhumane farming practices that contribute all kinds of suffering to other sentient beings on this planet. That would be a good start.

  • V Figueroa

    I’ve read the summaries and have heard reports of this study in the media. Just curious whether the researchers, while looking at health trends overall, “discovered” that church goers were heavier or if their intended goal was to prove that churchgoers were heavier. SO much bias out there regarding participants in religious orgs, one has to wonder.

    As well – could other strong social situations lead to participants in them gaining weight from social functions. Many of my married friends have less time to spend at the gym or in play and may gain weight due to more regular meal times together. What women in book clubs or guys in poker clubs?

    I hope the researchers, in their aim to be fair, expand their studies to other social orgs, and propose how people can benefit from the social support without weight gain, or some other relevant solution.

  • jack

    a lot to chew on Tom. When we are in Austin in May, lets get bbq and a diet coke. The kid did however have a good question!

  • JLHC

    It souinds like they didn’t distinguish denomination or faith; “High frequency of religious participation was defined as attending a religious function at least once a week.”

    The only place I have heard these two linked is in a study that compared weight loss in a several weight loss groups, one of which included a faith based component,and one that didn’t. In this case the one with the faith component had a better overall success rate, although that study had a lot of room for error.

  • Ann W. Turner

    I think this is one of those studies which it is very difficult to figure out how they came to the conclusions they did. What were the variables? Did religious participation and weight gain (I have NEVER heard of these two linked before, and I read a lot, a lot of health-related articles)hold true across all denominations? This just smells bad, and I’d agree with JLHD who questioned their research process. Until we know more, I think we need to suspend judgment here. Oh, yeah, and maybe suspend the breakfast burritos, and the Texas barbecue, and the donuts…..

  • JLHC

    Call me a lab rat, but I clicked on your link to the study, it was a commentary that linked to a more direct article, but I couldn’t find a link to peer reviewed paper, or any detailed explanation of their research process. I’d wait to see that before I really buy this.

    In some ways though, I could see how it works, usually church gatherings involve food, and it isn’t always healthy food. We don’t have unlimited time in our days, so people who prioritize time at church, or time spent in prayer may have less time to exercise.

  • Chaplain Jeff

    I just so happen to be Presbyterian. We don’t necessarily practice fasting for lent. So, if I’m talking out of my‚Ķ donut hole, excuse me.
    Keeping that in mind, 40 days hardly makes up for the other 325.25 days a year in which we have at least cookies and coffee at EVERY activity. I don’t know about the rest of you readers, but the symbol of my denomination is the casserole dish. “For where two or three gather in My Name, there I will be with them. Pass the Oreos please.”
    If we don’t have enough after the service/mass, most of us go out to a brunch that consists of far more calories than we have at breakfast in the rest of the week. Maybe we should have a 5K run to seal our worship every week.
    I am a pot. You know what to call me.

  • ml

    I’d guess it correlates with socioeconomic/education differences, for the most part.

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