Editor's note: The following op-ed originally ran in the Opinion section on FoxNews.com on June 3, 2012.
“Good morning, I am Pastor Doug and I am obese.” Pastor Doug Anderson shocked his Sunday morning congregation at Rose Heights Church with these uncommon and uncomfortable opening remarks. Just prior to this sermon Pastor Doug Anderson of Tyler, Texas had a personal wake up call during his annual visit to his primary care physician.
He learned that his body mass index had effortlessly slipped into the obese range and he was no longer just an “overweight” pastor. Stunned by the word “obese” now attached to his name he realized that it was the time for a personal lifestyle makeover.
Today in America Pastor Doug is not alone. Nearly one-half of the American population will be obese by 2030 according to a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The researchers estimate that this will result in an additional $66 billion dollars in health care expenditures, 7.8 million new cases of diabetes, 6.8 million new cases of stroke and heart disease, and 539,000 new cancer diagnoses. This epidemic of obesity and commonly associated diseases creates a gash in the fabric of our country that threatens the future of individuals, families, and our nation.
But a potentially larger crisis is looming in the pews of churches across America. In fact, statistics suggest that the church today may indeed be in worse condition than the general population. A 2006 Purdue study found that the fundamental Christians are by far the heaviest of all religious groups led by the Baptists with a 30% obesity rate compared with Jews at 1%, Buddhists and Hindus at 0.7%.
This study prompted the lead researcher, Ken Ferraro to say, “America is becoming a nation of gluttony and obesity and churches are a feeding ground for this problem.”
Similarly, a 2011 Northwestern University study tracking 3,433 men and women for 18 years found that young adults who attend church or a bible study once a week are 50% more likely to be obese.
The Pawtucket Heart Health Program found that people who attended church were more likely than non-church members to be 20 percent overweight and have higher cholesterol and blood pressure numbers.
Finally, a 2001 Pulpit and Pew study of 2,500 clergy found that 76% were overweight or obese compare to 61% of the general population at the time of the study.
At the church level pastors and clergy are burdened by the skyrocketing number of their members with chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease and confess that a growing and disproportionate amount their time is spent caring for their ill members and less time spent in study, discipleship, and evangelism.
Recently, another pastor in Texas shared that his church health premiums doubled in 2012 because one staff member developed several diseases directly related to diet and lifestyle.
The obesity epidemic in the church appears to be undermining the primary purpose of the church and its missions work by straining church budgets, decidedly absorbing money that would be spent on missions abroad, and consuming the time and energy of pastors and church members.
The contemporary church culture has unwittingly contributed to the rise in overweight and obese parishioners. Today it is rare to hear a sermon preached on the stewardship of the physical body and even more rare on the vice of gluttony; it has become a secret and acceptable vice in the modern church.
Tables at potlucks strain under the weight of pound cakes, pizza, fried chicken and cheesecake and fellowship is not considered complete without these rich, decadent –and yes addictive foods.
The sacred Sunday ritual between services is donuts, bagels and cream cheese, and coffee with cream and sugar.
And finally, Platonic dualism, the belief that the spirit is sacred and the physical body is corrupt and inconsequential, perpetuates this problem and assists many in justifying unhealthy nutritional habits.
Churches across America stand at a critical crossroad urgently in need of a decision to be a cause or a cure to the growing epidemic of disease and obesity. But in the midst of every crisis is an opportunity.
In January of 2012 Pastor Doug made a decision to change his lifestyle and be a living example for his congregation. Three months later he was 50 pounds lighter, healthier, and filled with new energy and vitality. More importantly he says that he is a healthier pastor for his church, a healthier husband for his wife, a healthier father for his children.
How did he do it?
He did not join a high tech gym, count calories, purchase expensive meals or join one of the latest fad diets. Instead, he simply shifted his diet away from processed foods, reduced his meat consumption, drank more water, ate as many vegetables and fruits as he wanted and was never hungry, and walked every day: A simple and sustainable lifestyle change.
What is the solution to the obesity crisis in the church? The Church. The intrinsic community and power of small groups are catalytic sources for change that can fuel grass roots movements. Couple this with solid faith based teachings on health, stewardship, and a return to foods provided by their Creator and the church could quickly reverse the obesity trend and serve as a positive influence and resource to surrounding communities.
Scott Stoll, M.D. is the author of "Alive!" a member of the Whole Foods Scientific and Medical Advisory board, Team Physician US Bobsled Team, Olympian and Chairman of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Coordinated Health. For more visit www.fullyalivetoday.com.