Controlling diabetes with help from a higher power

November 25, 2014

Dr. Heather Kitzman-Ulrich and Leilani Dodgen

Religious faith promotes spiritual health, but can it also influence physical well-being?

That’s a question UNT Health Science Center researchers seek to answer by teaming with pastors at churches in southern Dallas County to test the effectiveness of obesity and diabetes prevention curriculums that include faith-based components.

The five-year project focuses on African-American women because statistics show they are more likely to be overweight and have diabetes than Caucasian women. They also are much more likely to call their church a major influence in their lives, studies show.

"We hypothesized that if we included some faith-based concepts and involved their pastor, that this might improve their motivation and lead to better outcomes," said Heather Kitzman-Ulrich, PhD, Assistant Professor of Behavioral and Community Health and Principal Investigator.

An advisory group of pastors and their wives helped write a 16-week curriculum that integrated faith-based elements with the Diabetes Prevention Program. The curriculum includes pastor-delivered sermons that integrate objectives of each week’s program curriculum, scripture included in participant and facilitator materials, prayer, and take-home faith activities.

To measure success, researchers will track participants’ weight, waistline, blood lipids, estrogen and cortisol levels, and diet, among other things, Project Manager Leilani Dodgen said. Those measurements will then be compared to those of participants in identical diabetes prevention courses that do not include faith-based elements.

Twelve churches will participate in the project, which was funded by a $1 million grant from the National Institute of Health and conducted by the Texas Center for Health Disparities within UNTHSC. Rev. George King of Cities of Refuge-Dallas, who helped write the curriculum, said that he believes the involvement of churches will help participants stay motivated.

"Our goal is not to make this feel like a program they are going through, but a lifestyle change they are making with the support of their pastors and fellow church members," he said.

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