But he’s had a hard time convincing people that staying in shape is his duty as a Christian — or that obesity is something churches should address.
“All of us eat, eat, eat,” said Whyte, pastor of Harvest International Ministries in Anniston. “And we never address the fact that gluttony is a sin.”
This month, Whyte’s church is moving from Saks to a 4,000-square-foot building on Wilmer Avenue — a building that will double as a fitness studio for churchgoers. The Whytes say they’re concerned about high rates of obesity in Anniston, and they say the church should be a part of the solution to the problem.
Rates of obesity nationwide have risen dramatically in the past 25 years, according to studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And Alabama has been among the leaders in that trend. According to the CDC, 32 percent of Alabamians are obese, the third-highest rate in the nation.
We’re also at the buckle of the Bible Belt. According to the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life, 74 percent of Alabamians say religion is “very important” in their lives — which puts the state second only to Mississippi.
There is, it seems, a link. A study by Northwestern University, released last year, analyzed 18 years of health data from 2,400 people nationwide, and found that when compared to people with no church involvement, once-a-week churchgoers were more than twice as likely to become obese.
The Northwestern study isn’t the only one to suggest a link between weight and faith. Curiously, though, studies on other aspects of health — including rates of smoking, drinking and depression — show churchgoers ahead of their unchurched counterparts.
Is it the casseroles?
With food at the heart of so many church events, it’s little wonder churchgoers put on a few pounds.
“Our churches cook wonderful meals,” said Miriam Gaines, director of the State Obesity Task Force. “But sometimes they aren’t the most healthy meals.”
But for Ken Ferraro, a professor of sociology at Purdue University, that’s just one of several theories. Ferraro has co-authored studies on the church-overweight link and its possible causes.
“It may be that religious affiliation contributes to weight gain, or it may be that people who are overweight seek comfort and companionship in the church,” he said.
Still, Ferraro said he hasn’t found any evidence that heavier people are going to church because of their weight.
He has found that some churches are fatter than others.
Baptists are the heaviest religious group, according to Ferraro’s research. (Ferraro considered all Baptists — white or black, Southern Baptist, National Baptist, Independent Baptist and so on — as a single group.)
Coming in a fairly distant second were “fundamentalist Protestants,” another lumped-together group that includes Church of Christ, Church of God, Assemblies of God and other evangelical groups.
Catholics, Methodists, African Methodist Episcopals and several other groups jockey for third place.
Other groups — including Buddhists Jews, Muslims, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses — showed obesity rates under 5 percent, but Ferraro warns that there were only small numbers of each of those groups in his study.
Ferraro notes that Baptist churches include large numbers of African-Americans and white Southerners, groups with high rates of overweight and obesity. But even after controlling for race, region and income, he said, Baptists come out a bit heavier.
The shape of the churchgoer may be determined, in part, by the shape of the church. Larger churches can support church gyms, exercise classes and weight-loss programs, Ferraro noted. While Baptists do build megachurches, the rural South is dotted with congregations of fewer than 100. Ferraro said other evangelical faiths, and non-denominational churches, may be ahead on the megachurch front.
And while Baptists and other evangelical faiths encourage abstinence from tobacco and alcohol, those lessons don’t necessarily translate to food.
“The all-or-nothing approach works for tobacco and alcohol. But people have to eat,” Ferraro said. “The mentality of completely abstaining from certain types of behavior seems to work — most Baptists probably don’t drink — but it doesn’t help in terms of learning self-regulation.”
‘We have to eat, we’re Baptists’
Sid Nichols, director of missions for the Calhoun Baptist Association, doesn’t buy the theory that Baptists are more likely to be heavy. And he doesn’t think church is the place to look for the cause of obesity.
“I don’t even know how to respond to that,” Nichols said. “I think somebody’s just looking for a reason to write a book.”
Nichols acknowledged, though, that food is a big part of Baptist culture — big enough that Baptists joke about it.
“Church is about fellowship, and in the South, that means eating,” he said. “A lot of people say, ‘We have to eat, we’re Baptists.’”
But that’s a long-standing tradition, Nichols said. What’s changed, he said, is the lack of outdoor activity.
“When I was a kid, we’d go out and play ball,” he said. “Today, kids play computer games.”
And it doesn’t take a big church, gym and all, to get kids out to play, some ministers say. Rev. Steve Mayes said it used to be common for small, rural churches to be engaged in church softball or volleyball leagues.
“I suppose it saw its heyday in the 1980s,” said Mayes, pastor of Hope Community Church, a rural Presbyterian church near Jacksonville. “I don’t think it’s as fashionable now.”
It’s Zumba, not pole-dancing
The Bible is a book of milk and honey. Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes. Esau traded his birthright for a mess of pottage. God sustained the Israelites with manna from heaven.
There’s no specific guidance on high-fructose corn syrup. Or processed foods. Or portion control. But Reinaldo Whyte said he’s sure God wants us to be trimmer than many of us are.
“We’ve never taught people to take care of their bodies, even though the Bible says the body is a temple,” he said.
Whyte has urged other preachers to take on health as an issue, but he’s had some push-back. Some tell him the church has bigger problems to deal with.
Jennifer Whyte, the fitness instructor, has seen even stronger pushback. Acquaintances have referred to her fitness courses as “pole-dancing” classes, she said — implying, not too subtly, that there’s something sexual about them.
She says she gets it. As a child, Whyte attended strict Methodist churches where dancing was frowned on as a sensual activity.
“I don’t feel that way,” she said. “There’s plenty of dancing in the Bible. God wants His people to get up and celebrate.”
Or at least, she said, they should get up and do something.
“Church people focus a lot on the spirit,” she said. “And that’s good. But you don’t want to focus on the spirit in a way that the body gets disrespected.”
What: Zumba fitness party under the lights
When: 1 p.m. April 28
Where: Harvest International Ministry, 707 Wilmer Ave., next to Snow Glass, Anniston
How much: Free
For more info, contact Jenniffer Whyte, 256-473-3463 or Facebook: Zumba Fitness with Jenniffer.