Will Religion Solve the Obesity Crisis?

As obesity quickly becomes the central health concern of America today (affecting more than one-third of U.S. adults), it is no surprise that religion has entered the national dialogue as a possible site for fighting the obesity epidemic. What may surprise you is where we’re looking: the Book of Daniel and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. 

The Book of Daniel is the inspiration for Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren’s new initiative. Warren claims to have been inspired by Daniel, who refused rich foods of the royal court in order to serve God more fully. Warren started the Daniel Plan, a program of workout classes, meal plans, support meetings, walk and worship sessions, and online workout trackers. In the video below, Warren associates good health with good religion. “I’m responsible to God to make the most of my time, my life, my body, my words, my relationship,” he states, “so there’s a stewardship issue.” This, despite a recent study showing a correlation between church attendance and obesity.

As Warren has been shedding earthly pounds, psychologist Kevin Roundling has demonstrated that being primed with religious thoughts boost people’s self-control in laboratory settings. As Epiphenom reports, thinking about religion improved test subjects’ abilities to stay focused and resist temptation. Test subjects primed with religious thoughts were better able to:

• Drink more cups of a disgusting orange juice/vinegar blend.
• Put off receiving a reward of $5 now, in order to receive more money later.
• Perform on the “Stroop Test,” where subjects are shown color words (e.g. “red” or “green”) that are themselves written in different colors.  The challenge is to focus diligently on the color of the words, which requires serious mental effort. (It’s really hard, try it yourself here if you don’t believe me.)

These findings don’t demonstrate that religious people have more self-control in general, or that religious practice necessarily requires self-control, but they do indicate that, at least for these test subjects, religious thoughts can act as a kind of mental trick. Is this behind the success of Rick Warren’s Daniel Plan? Recent neuroimaging provides an interesting answer.

ScienceDaily reports that brain imaging studies have recently been able to model self-control in action, and that it tends to happen in two major places. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is associated with recognizing situations where self-control is needed. (“There’s salad and lasagna and chocolate cake at this all-you-can-eat buffet, and one of these has been causing me problems!”). The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) seems to manage self-control, by helping to regulate and evaluate choices. (“No to Chocolate Cake!”) 

These findings are still new, and brain imaging can only make large-scale generalizations, but the initial results are interesting. It seems that during tests of self-control, our ACC keeps firing, but our DLPFC fires less and less over time. In other words, we keep evaluating and assessing what we should and shouldn’t do, but our ability to delay gratification and withstand discomfort depletes over time. This may help explain the experience of knowing quite well that you shouldn’t eat that chocolate cake, and then doing it anyway after the third or fourth offer. This study contributes to an existing theory that self-control can be “depleted,” and affirms our frustration with friends who won’t stop offering seconds.

The ACC/DLPFC divide also contributes to the finding (reported by The New Yorker’s Jonah Lehrer) that simple mental tricks can dramatically improve our ability to delay gratification. If we pretend that the chocolate cake in front of us is made out of plastic, for example, we can trick our ACC into assessing and evaluating a little bit differently, so that our DLPFC reserves aren’t diminished. In other words, it is much easier to resist temptations if we adjust our worldview so that they no longer seem like temptations at all.

These findings are particularly helpful for understanding Warren’s diet plan and Roundling’s study. As any dieter will tell you, the secret to self-control is to change your day-to-day relationship with tempting foods. Chocolate cake has to code-switch, from “a thing I want and must resist” to “a thing I don’t want right now,” and that happens in the ACC. As Roundling’s study shows, religious thoughts seem to help with short-term code switching because they offer a concrete set of alternative values. Similarly, when Warren says that caring for his body is a “stewardship issue,” he might be actively molding his worldview so that chocolate cake is no longer a pleasure, but a temptation to be resisted. Healthy living, of course, amounts to more than quick decisions: it involves cultivating new routines, bodily habits, and values. The Daniel Plan, with its daily calorie trackers and networks of support, probably help practitioners do this same work. 

These findings are new, and we should be careful not to extrapolate a few synapses into big ideas about religion in general. At the very least, though, we can try thinking of Rick Warren the next time we face chocolate cake.