Religious islanders may weigh more

23:52, Jan 07 2014
Colin Tukuitonga
NATURAL AVENUE: Dr Colin Tukuitonga, Director-General for the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in New Caledonia, said the church had a "profound impact on what adults do".

Pacific Islanders have a greater risk of being obese if they attend church.

The bizarre link between religion and obesity has been found by Kiwi researchers who are now calling for the country's Pacific Island church leaders to play an active role in the battle against the bulge by hosting aerobics classes or healthy eating programmes between the pews.

The phenomenon, which is internationally recognised, has been pinned on churchgoers eating unhealthier breakfasts and lunches, doing lower levels of physical activity and having a limited knowledge of the serious risk factors of being obese.

Lead researcher Dr Ofa Dewes, from Auckland University's Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, said she was not concerned about any potential controversy the research may spark. "This is a matter of fact and if the controversy will make people think and look and try to find solutions to help this problem, then I think that outweighs the controversy the facts present," she said.

The study, published in the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners Journal of Primary Health Care last month, focused on New Zealand's Pacific Island population, which not only has the highest obesity rates in the country, but 97 per cent of its community has an affiliation with Christianity.

About 2500 Pacific Island teenagers living in low socio-economic areas in Auckland were involved in the research and the results found "church attendees had a higher mean body mass index (BMI) compared with non- attendees".


Church attendees had a mean BMI of 27.4, while non-attendees had a mean BMI of 26.6. More than 40 per cent of the eligible students chose not to participate in the study, which could have potentially skewed the results.

Churchgoers were found to be more likely to purchase breakfast and lunch from a shop or school canteen rather than bringing it from home.

They were also less likely to walk or bike to school.

Pacific Island populations have one of the highest obesity rates in the world, with 64 per cent of New Zealand's Pacific Island adults and almost one in four children obese.

Culturally-appropriate weight management interventions were "urgently" needed to reverse the burgeoning burden of obesity and its consequences on Pacific Island communities, the study found.

And the church may be the best venue for this, it read.

Churches had been used as a vehicle for promoting healthy lifestyles for many years, yet obesity prevalence had continued to rise, Dewes said.

"What we are doing now is not enough. We need to move beyond this and it's time the Pacific community stands up and does something about it."

Dewes was working with several churches to permanently embed healthy cultural expectations and weight loss interventions into their programmes.

Dr Colin Tukuitonga, recently appointed Director-General for the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in New Caledonia, said the church had a "profound impact on what adults do" and was a natural avenue for advocating behavioural change.

Tukuitonga said: "Naturally, you would think the church would be a good avenue, but it's hard work and the returns are not fantastic."

Churchgoers often had strong fatalistic attitudes to health and dying and it was a commonly held view that "if my time has come, whether that is through obesity or some other illness, then my time has come and that's God's will so who am I to question it", he said.

The Press