[Fat people. They exist everywhere. In the North and the South. In the city and in the country. In the movies and in real life. There are gobs of fit and healthy and gorgeous Southerners. I even know some of them. But, believe me, I know better than to write a homily on obesity without making a few timely disclaimers. I am just one (exceedingly, effortlessly skinny :)) girl who doesn't really know much about the topic. But I do know how to read and I like to read articles about things that I don't know much about. Like obesity. I even like to read articles that are arguably a bit offensive in tone. Because being provoked makes me feel alive! I know that obesity is a topic that is controversial and I know that there are different definitions of obesity and speculations about its cause. Yes. I could spend hours whipping up an essay about what obese really means. But I'm not in the mood. And you can't make me. What obesity doesn't mean - at least for purposes of this post - is feeling like you should get to the gym or eat healthier or lose some weight. That is not obesity. That is life.]
In her recent Time article Why Are Southerners So Fat? Claire Suddath explores (drum roll, please) why Southerners are so fat. She said it. I didn't. And she isn't just a Yankee making this stuff up. No, she has statistics on her side. Per Suddath, Mississippi "has gobbled its way to the "chubbiest state" crown for the fifth year in a row" and eight of the ten fattest states are in the South. [Footnote! I read this post to Nanny Editor and she said, Make sure you put article quotes in bold so that people don't think you said those things about the South! Genius. Ergo bold quotes.] Anyway, like a good student, Suddath doesn't just swallow these statistics and go on with her good day. No, she asks why. And like a good student, she posits answers to her own questions. Why are there a disproportionate number of fat people in the South?
Poverty. Mississippi is also the poorest state and other fat states have high poverty levels. Suddath quotes Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America: "When you're poor, you tend to eat more calorie-dense foods because they're cheaper than fruits and vegetables." Furthermore, she notes that impoverished regions tend to have fewer grocery stores. But Suddath allows that poverty can't be the only explanation because Montana, Texas, and New Mexico - which she deems poor states - have relatively low levels of obesity.
Culture. Could it be that Southerners are fatter because they exist in a culture of fried food? Suddath writes (gasp and the following is BOLD), "Southerners definitely enjoy their fried chicken (not to mention fried steak, fried onions, fried green tomatoes, fried pickles and fried corn bread). Even when their food isn't fried, they like to smother it in gravy." But then she is smart. She backtracks and admits that this is an unfair assessment. Phew. She concedes that "Southerners don't really sit around eating fried chicken every day."
David Bassett, co-director of the University of Tennessee's Obesity Research Center, admits that he lives in the 'Stroke Belt,' referring to Southeastern states' higher instances of heart disease and hypertension, but Bassett suggests that this has more to do with lower levels of physical activity. And, moreover, that this is not simply about neglected gym memberships. Rather, Bassett argues that lower levels of physical activity are linked to a paucity of bus stops and sidewalks. He bemoans the fact that because of often "paltry" public transportation, people get around almost exclusively by car. And I do not know much about driving (since I am a 30-year-old girl sans license), but I do know that it doesn't burn too many calories.
Climate. The South is hot and sticky. Bassett notes that no one "sane" opts to go for a jog in 100 degree heat and points out that Colorado, the skinniest state in our fair union, is relatively affluent and has a temperate climate and has plenty of trails on which to run.
So there you have it. Like most things in life, it comes down to money and fried food and bus stops and the weather. But poverty levels and culture and climate are not things we can fiddle with and fix overnight. And yet Suddath and Bassett hint that there should perhaps be optimism about the future. That schools in the South are adopting some promising programs involving nutritional standards and body mass screening. And it might just be a matter of time, but that things will look brighter (and skinnier) for the South.
Not to gloat, but I just read some very good news. Per a recent report, Manhattan County is the skinniest of the sixty-three counties in New York. Take that, Westchester!
Okay, now you are officially allowed to be offended. Let me know if you are. And why. Do you think that geographically disparate obesity levels are caused by some combination of poverty, culture and climate or something else?