Eat, Pray, Live: New Research Examines the Faith-Health Connection for African-Americans

May 10, 2021

Durham, N.C. — Researchers have long treated “the Black Church” as a monolith, which obscures and prevents a more precise understanding of the varied health outcomes within this diverse population. To combat this characterization, the Cook Center’s Health Equity working group has produced three journal articles in recent months—the third of which was published online Sunday—that highlight disparate health outcomes that are present within the Black Christian community.

These studies, which are summarized in the research brief found here, indicate that the relationship between religion and health among Black Protestants is not uniform and underscore the necessity to examine the nuances within this population. This will allow researchers to determine why certain subgroups experience better outcomes and how to improve the health of people from groups with higher prevalence of these cardiovascular disease risk factors.

The trio of papers are part of a five-year project the Cook Center began in 2017, supported by a grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health. The researchers—led by Bentley-Edwards, the Center’s associate director of research—and Paul A. Robbins, a postdoctoral research associate and a primary author on all three papers—had previously explored the connection between religiosity, obesity, and diabetes among Black men and women in a 2019 paper.

This endeavor is critical given that African Americans report the highest levels of religious engagement of any ethnic group in the United States, making church services and other religious activities potential channels for strategic health engagement. These papers emphasize why it is not always appropriate to treat Black faith groups like they are essentially the same and establish several key research and intervention considerations moving forward. The authors’ findings show that, at times, denomination and its associated culture matters in health research, and that this might be particularly true for Black women—America’s most religious demographic group.

“The dynamics between historically Black churches and denominations vary widely in regards to gender from personal expectations, division of labor, all the way to leadership roles,” said Bentley-Edwards. “We anticipated that these gender dynamics may also play a role in how denomination and gender, among other things, intersect to affect health—which our findings supported.”

According to the recent publications, researchers and practitioners should evaluate the potential presence of cultural diversity within and between Black faith communities, even among historically Black denominations. These three studies suggest that, in order to conduct more meaningful research on religion and health, researchers must disaggregate data to determine how the intersections of denomination, gender, age, and level of religious involvement can affect various outcomes. “These groups often have distinct religious experiences and researchers should seek to examine within group differences in health studies whenever possible,” said Robbins. “Approaching investigations with greater nuance can provide information that improves community health engagement by identifying groups who manage their health well and sending more targeted resources to groups who could benefit from additional support.”

The full research brief can be read here. For media and press inquiries, please contact Lucas Hubbard at (207) 460-8717 or

This research was supported by funding from National Institutes of Health / National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (Religion, Spirituality, and CVD Risk: A Focus on African Americans, R01 MD011606-01A1).