ST. PETERSBURG, Fla (Reuters) - Pastor Michael Minor stirred a bit of controversy at his northwest Mississippi church when he banned fried chicken from the fellowship hall.
But convinced that faith communities need to step up their efforts against obesity, Minor is now urging fellow African-American congregations nationwide to make the health of their members a priority.
"Our bodies are not our own. They're a gift from God," he said. "We should do a better job with our bodies."
Church leaders across the country agree. A pastor in San Antonio, Texas, last month kicked off a 100-day challenge that pairs faith with fat-fighting. A church in Tampa, Florida, hosted classes on healthier eating. Others have instituted "Salad Sundays," community gardens and exercise programs.
The wellness push comes at an opportune time, with recent reports showing Americans keep getting heavier. The problem is particularly worrisome in the South, the region with the country's highest adult obesity rates.
Public health experts say faith communities, with their long records of tending to the sick and driving social change, are in a unique position to help tackle the obesity epidemic and the severe health problems associated with it.
"Churches are a foundation in the community," said Victor Sutton, director of the Office of Preventive Health for the Mississippi state health department.
"Sometimes you can have a doctor tell someone something, and they'll blow it off," he said. "A pastor can tell someone what to do, and they'll take it as a scientific fact."
But some religious leaders say they have learned that simply preaching against the sin of gluttony or holding once-a-year health fairs isn't enough.
Distressed by the high obesity rate in San Antonio, Pastor Charles Flowers launched a 100-day weight-loss challenge between churches in his city and Austin in July.
He said the program focuses not only on slimming down but also helps participants sort out the emotional issues that drive them to overeat.
"The gospel is a gospel of spirit, soul and body," said Flowers, senior pastor at the Faith Outreach Center International in San Antonio. "We pay a lot of attention to the spirit side and very little attention to the body side."
Weekly access to members offers churches an effective means of both dispensing information and discerning needs, said Elizabeth Williams, an assistant professor of public health at Tennessee State University and an associate pastor.
A growing awareness of those assets has prompted churches to use weekly bulletins to address a host of medical issues, develop health ministries and connect members with primary health care services.
Those who prepare the meals offered after services at Williams' church in Nashville have eliminated fried foods, cut back on salt and opted for turkey-based products over pork.
"Those subtle kinds of policy changes can have a huge impact," she said.
The doughnuts-and-coffee culture that is so ingrained in church fellowship isn't always easily overcome.
Minor, who has worked on local and regional health initiatives in the mid-South for more than a decade, said it was "a traumatic time" at his church when he ordered the switch to baked and grilled chicken.
He also created a walking track in the church parking lot, swapped soft drinks with water and Crystal Light at church meals and encouraged more physical activities at picnics.
"We've got members who are feeling better, looking better," he said. "We haven't gotten everybody, but people are more accepting of it now."
Last fall, the educational arm of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., the country's largest African-American denomination, gave Minor the green light to establish a network of trained health ambassadors to fuel initiatives in each of its congregations.
He said the idea is to make health a year-round focus both in the church and beyond.
A concern for the well-being of the broader community is behind many of the faith-based efforts to fight obesity, said Marjorie Paloma, a senior policy advisor at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The foundation in 2009 awarded about $5 million in grants to 22 faith-based coalitions working around the country to increase access to healthy foods and physical activity through community advocacy, particularly for children in minority groups and low-income neighborhoods who face the greatest risk of obesity.
"So many of the faith communities have looked at it in more than just a framework of childhood obesity," Paloma said. "It's really about ensuring that every person has the ability to live a long and healthy life."
Editing by Jerry Norton