UCLA study links obesity with Sikh religiosity

Typical tray of food served during langar. (Source: PunjabiPortal)

Typical tray of food served during langar (Sikh community kitchen). (Source: PunjabiPortal)

In 2011, an article in TIME magazine discussed a study that correlated a person’s risk of obesity with their attendance of religious services, finding that “…people who went to church or church activities at least once a week were more than twice as likely as people with no religious involvement to become obese.”

While the results of the study was not specific to Sikhs or Sikh Americans, I considered the Sikh context — particularly as it relates to the Sikh practice of langar, the community kitchen attached to every Gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in which everyone participates in an expression of humility and equality. However, as langar is regularly and enthusiastically prepared today:

Often, the food that is prepared is so heavy – having been made using heavy cream, butter and oil – that an afternoon nap is part of the worship process. In my family, we’ve gone so far as to diagnose the condition as “PLS” – post-langar syndrome.

A recent study out of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has now shed more light on the obesity epidemic specifically among Sikh Americans, by exploring the connection between “religiosity” and obesity among immigrant Sikh, Hindu and Muslim populations in California:

…the researchers found that those Indians who were highly religious were more likely (1.53 greater odds) to be overweight or obese than those who were less religious. This relationship — or increased odds — persisted for Hindus and Sikhs but not Muslims.

The study, based on the results of a 2004 telephone survey of 3,200 individuals in California, clearly demonstrates the negative impact of the way in which we are engaging in our religious traditions. The researchers of the study, while surprised by the results, theorized about the reasons behind the different obesity rates between the Muslim versus the Hindu and Sikh populations:

First, there were fewer Muslims in the dataset, so there may have been too few to see an impact. Second, there are differences in religious practices: Hindus and Sikhs may adhere to a vegetarian diet but drink alcohol heavily or eat food high in saturated fat or refined sugar at frequent religious and social gatherings, while Muslims abstain from alcohol and practice 30 days of daytime fasting during Ramadan, which may decrease their risk for weight gain.

The results of the study reinforces what we commonly recognize about our practices around langar, especially in the west: the trend towards offering rich, fatty, and otherwise unhealthy food is negatively affecting the health of our population, while offering less in the way of expressing the intent of langar. One does not need to look far, as typically, those who are residents of Gurdwaras in the west (musicians or those who are tasked with performing services), become obese themselves. Certainly, this harmful result is antithetical to the motivation behind langar.

However, what this study also highlights is the impact that Gurdwara- and Sikh-religious practices have on our physical health as it pertains to diet and nutrition. Instead of the negative impact on our health, how our religious practices around food influence our behavior can be leveraged more positively to bring awareness about health and nutrition.

The UCLA study is published in the journal Preventative Medicine, which can be accessed online (for a fee) here. UCLA also issued a press release summarizing the findings from the study, which is available here.

One comment

  1. Harsimran

    Thanks so much for highlighting this issue (which I’m sure that we are all anecdotally aware of, but it is great to see actual academic research on this issue). I would add that the Sikh langar diet may likely be correlated to the community’s genetic propensity for diabetes – not only given diabetes’ link to obesity, but the diet itself, which is carb-heavy. (For diabetics, limited or forbidden carbs not only include sugar/desserts, roti & rice, but also dal/beans, fruit, milk, and even starchy vegetables like peas & corn.) Unfortunately, eating langar as a diabetic is a (sad) challenge.


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