- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2004

Traditional church cuisine — chocolate cake and glazed doughnuts with coffee or fried chicken and potato salad at the covered-dish supper — is comforting and scrumptious, but not generally considered health food.

However, there’s more to the churchgoer’s diet than meets the eye.

One researcher from Missouri-based St. Louis University has linked healthy diet and church attendance.

“Those who frequently attended church ate 26 percent more ‘powerhouse’ fruits and vegetables — those fruits and veggies that contain the most nutrients — than those who didn’t attend church,” said Deidre Griffith of the university’s School of Public Health.

She interviewed 315 women and presented her findings before the American Public Health Association last week.

All the women ate popular fruits and vegetables, such as corn, iceberg lettuce and bananas. Those who went to “food-related church events” regularly ate more of brightly colored fruits and vegetables like broccoli, carrots, cantaloupe and leafy greens.

“Frequent churchgoers — many of whom attended choir rehearsals, Bible-study groups, workshop services or committee meetings each week — ate more of the stuff,” Miss Griffith said. “Church can be a big part of your support system for changing your diet.”

Still, that sweet and savory church cooking is a beloved institution around the nation, chronicled in such recent cookbooks as “The Church Ladies’ Divine Desserts” by Brenda Rhoades Miller and “The Church Supper Cookbook” by David Joachim.

But low-fat veggies and biblical principles offer a strong alternative.

Massachusetts-based Carol Showalter founded “Diet, Discipline and Discipleship,” a faith-based weight-loss program, in 1972. Some 5,000 churches have since tried her 12-week plan, which incorporates American Dietetic Association principles, but “brings health and spirituality together in a diet-crazed world.”

Two years ago, Christian author Sheri Rose Shepherd also stressed spiritual guidelines for healthy eating in “Eating for Excellence,” adding Bible passages and advising dieters to “put God’s will first in diet and nutrition.”

Both federal and state-based health initiatives have discovered that churches are an effective way to spread the word.

The North Carolina Division of Public Health, for example, offers churches throughout the state “Eat Smart, Move More,” a practical educational program that promotes diet and exercise.

But one researcher has made a correlation between the fat and the faithful.

In 1998, Purdue University sociologist Kenneth Ferraro reasoned that religious lifestyles discouraged drinking and tobacco use, but not necessarily overeating. After poring over national health statistics, which included information on personal faith, he called the link between “being overweight and being religious statistically significant.”

But faith has other benefits — perhaps a comfort to congregations who still want coconut cake at their church social.

“Religious adults report higher levels of well-being,” he noted, which could in turn counterbalance any tendency to be depressed about their weight.

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