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Duke study finds differences in diabetes and obesity rates within black churches

There are correlations between religion, diabetes and obesity within African-American churches, according to a new Duke University study.

The study published last month in the Journal of Religion and Health cites two main findings:

Black Americans identifying as Baptist are more likely to have diabetes than those identifying as Catholic or Presbyterian, and

Black men who go to church five or more times a week are three times more likely to be obese than their counterparts who seldom or rarely attend.

Researchers aren’t saying church attendance causes diabetes or obesity, only that there is a correlation, said Keisha L. Bentley-Edwards, associate director of research and director of the health equity working group at the Cook Center. Additional research would be needed to find out how they are connected, she said.

Bentley-Edwards, who also teaches general internal medicine, said considerable health research has been done comparing the traits of white Christians to black Christians. But relatively little work has been done looking at differences between denominations of black Christians, or between black members of the same denomination who have different roles in the church and participate to different degrees.

“We wanted to look at nuances within the black church, and not just treat the black church as a monolithic group with no diversity within it,” she said in a telephone interview with The News & Observer.

The team used an existing database, the National Survey of American Life, conducted in the early 2000s to compare certain traits among African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans with those of white respondents living in the same communities.

Loneke Blackman Carr, who helped with the research and also teaches at the University of Connecticut, said the National Institutes of Health provided funding for the project in part because blacks are disproportionately affected by diabetes and obesity. Though about a third of all American men and women are obese, nearly half of African-Americans are obese, increasing their risk for diabetes and cardiovascular issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Churches — especially those with predominately black membership — have long been recognized for their potential in improving the health and wellness of their members of those in their communities. A 2002 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that black churches provide many more health-related services than white churches, whether in a rural or urban setting.. Those included prevention and treatment-oriented programs, as well as health screening, education and support, the study said.

A key to reducing diabetes and obesity rates lies in finding how these health issues might be connected to religion, the researchers say: Are there high-glycemic specialties in black Baptist churches’ covered-dish repertoires that are missing from black Catholic and Presbyterian gatherings? Are men who attend church nearly every day of the week sneaking comfort-food leftovers from the fellowship hall? Are they leaders of the church, who are so busy they over-rely on high-calorie, drive-through restaurant food? Does it matter that some denominations stress more than others the Bible’s teaching about the body being a temple? Do black churches need to offer exercise classes tailored for male members?

“We can’t wait to talk with some people,” Carr said, to try to find some explanations that might lead to custom interventions. “What this research shows is that one size doesn’t fit all.”

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.
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