As reported by The Hartford Courant, June 17, 2007.

Fighting Weight with Faith

Study: Religion with Diet Aids Black Women

By Hilary Waldman

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.

Researchers in Hartford have recently made an intriguing discovery: Combining social support and culturally appropriate nutritional information with a faith-based message can help black women lose weight and keep it off.

The scientists say the power of faith has been largely overlooked as the nation grapples with an epidemic of obesity and chronic disease that is crippling African American communities in staggering proportions.

"Studies have found that black women want to lose weight as much as white women, but they don't stick with programs," said Judith Fifield, a professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center. One of the reasons, Fifield said, is that weight loss programs and messages do not always fit with the cultural and economic realities of many black women's lives.

About three 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 video-taped 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.

At Shiloh Baptist Church in Hartford, the healthy-eating message has been extended to church suppers and the church-sponsored soup kitchen, the Rev. Nona Stewart said.

Church suppers used to feature a spread of fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and rice. Instead, the buffet at a recent church celebration included chicken and mushrooms, green beans with onions, salad, roast beef and just a little bit of macaroni and cheese for the traditionalists.

At the soup kitchen, the church chef has substituted whole wheat bread for white and fruit cups for dessert. Water is now the beverage of choice instead of fruit punch.

Stewart lost 50 pounds with the Sister Talk program and says she has been able to control her diabetes without injected insulin as a result.

The Hartford project is an extension of earlier research that used cable television to deliver culturally appropriate weight management messages to black women in Boston. Doing it through the churches works better, said Thomas Lasater, director of the Institute for Community Health Promotion at Brown University, which designed the first Sister Talk programs for TV.

Lasater said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to recommend the Sister Talk approach for obesity control in African American communities.

"These women want to work together," Lasater said. "They don't want to work for themselves."