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Faith-Based Dieting—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on October 8, 2008.

Faith-Based Dieting
By Ian Ayres ’86

John Dankosky recently interviewed me on Where We Live, his radio show, about using as a dieting tool. (You can listen to the interview here.)

What was really interesting about the discussion was my pairing with a group of people involved with Sister Talk — a faith-based approach to weight loss particularly developed to help African-American women. The opening to a Hartford Courant article describes Sister Talk this way:

You won’t hear Weight Watchers spokeswoman Sarah Ferguson talking about Jesus walking on water to inspire her followers to stick to their diets.

But that’s how the Rev. Joy Wright does it.

Delivering a taped sermon to a group of African-American women gathered in a Hartford church social hall, Wright, of the city’s Phillips Metropolitan CME Church, tells the story of Christ’s encounter with the disciple Peter in a boat. Jesus challenges Peter to demonstrate his faith and courage by getting out of the boat in the midst of a storm.

“Are you ready to get out of the boat?” Wright asks the participants. “God will give you the power to reach your goals; he’s waiting on you to make the first move.”

Wright isn’t talking about sin. She’s talking about food.

Dankosky paired us together because he originally thought that and Sister Talk were starkly different weight-loss methods. But you’ll hear on the podcast that we made several connections. The idea of making binding commitments is not antithetical to many religious traditions (think, for example, of the Lenten commitments to give up sweets).

And both programs emphasize “mindfulness.” Instead of committing to lose 10 or 20 pounds, you might commit to simply report your weight. Or, you might commit to attend Sister Talk meetings for a year.

We also bonded on the usefulness of using randomized testing to see whether any program actually helps.

I’ve written before about testing the efficacy of prayer. But in this interview, I was preaching to the converted. You see, one of the other people on the show was Judith Fifield, a professor of family medicine at the University of Connecticut. Dr. Fifield has already completed a randomized study of Sister Talk, as the Hartford Courant reports:

About [four] years ago, 12 Hartford-area churches enrolled in a study led by Fifield. At six of the churches, volunteers were invited to join a weight-management program at the church. The other churches were put on a waiting list.

At participating churches, support groups were led by a trained volunteer member. Each session opened with a videotaped sermon by a local pastor that linked a biblical message to the quest for a healthier body.

During each session, women learned to read food labels, discussed portion sizes, practiced exercises, and learned the benefits of drinking water and eating more fruits and vegetables. To cut fat, women were urged to modify favorite recipes. Instead of cooking collard greens with a ham hock, they were told to try steaming the greens with herbs. Chicken could be baked in the oven, instead of deep fried. Grits could be flavored with bacon or butter, but not both.

About 250 women participated in the program, called Sister Talk Hartford. And recently released results are promising, Fifield said. The study was funded by the Patrick and Catherine Weldon Donaghue Medical Research Foundation.

Women who participated in the program were 2.5 times more likely to lose weight than those whose churches were on the waiting list. More than half of the women who attended Sister Talk sessions lost weight, and another 8 percent maintained their starting weight. Thirty-seven percent gained weight during the program.

A year after the formal study ended, 66 percent of participants have maintained their weight or continued to lose, Fifield said. And while the study is over, many of the participating churches continue to offer Sister Talk sessions.

Dr. Fifield and I are trying to figure out whether there might be a way to collaborate on future studies. BTW, if any readers would like help setting up a randomized test to find out whether commitment contracts could help your group or organization stick to your goals, feel free to send me an email.