Faith-based weight loss

March 10, 2009 3:28:57 PM PDT
Everyone knows that having a strong support system can help make dieting easier. Now, there is new information about how the church can help. This was a unique program that is now being expanded into a much larger one, and it could become a model on how a community organization such as one's church could improve people's health by helping them with their weight loss.

At the Gospel Water Branch Baptist Church near Augusta, Georgia, Rita Jones was one of 39 African-Americans who signed up for the Fit, Body and Soul program.

It was designed to help the participants lose weight and make lifestyle changes to help prevent type 2 diabetes, a major risk factor for heart disease.

"There are many studies that have already shown that African-Americans have a high obesity, overweight and diabetes prevalence, as well as a risk for heart disease because of the high prevalence," said Dr. Sunita Dodani, an investigator with Kansas University Medical Center.

Lay leaders in the church were trained as health advisors. Their job was to educate study participants about weight loss, exercise and heart healthy behavioral changes.

Participants learned about healthy food servings and how to count calories. They kept daily dairies of fat and calorie intake and were encouraged to exercise.

The added element of being faith-based helped motivate participants to stick with the program.

"It actually brought us together at the church," program advisor and registered nurse Yvonne Dent said. "Not only for fellowship reasons, but also to support each other in this effort of losing weight and trying to be healthy."

The results? Three months later, almost half the participants had lost 5 percent of their starting weight. Almost 30 percent had lost 7 percent or more.

Six months later, all the weight was still off in 30 percent of the participants.

While the results were not astounding, they made a difference to many.

"The first thing that came to mind is...we can do it," Dr. Dodani said. "We can lose weight if there is a commitment. What it means is...change in the lifestyle, change in the behavior."

"It made not seem a lot to some people, but it made a difference in my life and it made me healthier and feel better," Jones said. "I know that if I can continue to use all of the things that I've learned from this program, that'll just lessen my percentage of being in that group of people who have those illnesses."

Twenty churches will be in a National Institute of Health controlled trial for the next step of this experiment. These results were presented at an american Heart Association conference Tuesday. Group weight loss is often dependent on education and support, and this is providing both. Recently, a study found that sticking to a diet is what made it work when one counted calories, and this faith-based support might help people stick to their commitment.