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Study finds South is not making people fat
MISSISSIPPI STATE – Seven states with the country’s highest obesity rates are in the South, but this issue that causes health problems such as diabetes and heart conditions cannot be blamed simply on Southern roots.
A study by the Southern Rural Development Center headquartered at Mississippi State University found that simply living in a region does not lead to obesity. In “The South Does Not Make You Fat: A study of nutrition, food security and obesity,” researchers found that minorities and lower-income groups have higher obesity rates.
“They find that the likelihood of being overweight or obese does not significantly differ across regions of the country after accounting for income, age, race-ethnicity and education,” the report stated.
The authors analyzed data from the Deep South -- Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina. They found that body mass index, or BMI, and obesity rates were higher in the Deep South than elsewhere, but these differences disappeared once factors such as age, income and race-ethnicity were considered.
“Low income, for example, is a better predictor of being overweight or obese for women than living in the South, as is being black or Hispanic,” the report stated. “The Deep South, in particular, has higher minority populations and more low income individuals than other regions of the country.”
The study looked at diet quality measured by whether individuals conform to federal dietary guidelines for grains, vegetables, dairy, meat and fruits. It also measured fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, as well as variety of diet. Activity level was self-reported, and the study also accounted for cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption.
Other studies have speculated that food insecurity, or uncertainty about the availability of sufficient food, can lead to obesity as those experiencing periodic food shortages respond by overeating when food is available. However, this explanation did not appear to be true in the population examined in the South.
The study found no link between food insecurity and obesity for women, but it did find men facing food insecurity have a lower BMI when the other factors are taken into account.
One finding was clear even after factors such as income, age and diet were factored in.
“Being a black woman was a significant predictor of higher BMI,” the study found. “Being a black man, in contrast, had no such effect. There was no effect of being Hispanic on BMI either for men or women.”
Brent Fountain, a human nutrition specialist with the MSU Extension Service, said the report confirmed speculation that among obesity’s many factors are genetics and environment, which includes dietary quality, physical activity and access to food.
“Poverty is an issue we deal with in the Deep South. When you compare per capita income in these states, we’re a lot lower than the national average,” Fountain said. “Poverty and income levels affect nutrition.”
Fountain said food choices are governed by what is acceptable, available and affordable.
“In those areas where the nearest grocery store is maybe many miles away, options become convenience stores, which don’t have a lot of shelf space or storage to offer fresh fruit and vegetables,” Fountain said. “If the food is too expensive, people can’t buy it even if it is available and they find it acceptable.”
Recent studies have noted that high-calorie foods and calorie-laden soft drinks cost less than healthier options, including fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products and fresh meat. Menus at fast-food restaurants include many inexpensive options, making it easy to access high-calorie foods rather than healthy foods.
Fountain suggested those wanting to make a change to improve eating habits should begin by keeping a journal of the foods they are consuming.
“We may think we know what we’re eating, but we often forget about some of the things we consume,” Fountain said. “When you begin tracking your foods, don’t worry about amounts, but write down what you eat and drink at meals and in between.”
Examine this food diary to find where changes can be made. If days pass without eating fruits or vegetables, try to incorporate these into daily meals. Set a goal to eat fruits and vegetables a certain number of days a week.
“Where can you make the change, and can it be sustainable?” Fountain asked. “If you see a glaring omission, try to start by correcting that. Can you switch from white bread to whole grain or from whole milk to a lower-fat variety? Those used to having meat at every meal could consider a dish with meat and beans, or use chicken or fish instead of beef.”
The pay-off for making these changes is big. The study said obesity costs the nation in increased jet fuel used, wider revolving doors and bigger movie seats, among other accommodations for larger-sized people.
“Some estimates put the cost of Americans’ expanding waistlines at $90 billion a year in increased medical spending,” the report stated.
Fountain said Americans are living longer, thanks in large part to improved medicine, so quality of life is becoming a big issue.
“We may or may not live longer, but the longer we consume a healthy diet, our quality of life certainly improves,” Fountain said. “Medicine may help people with certain chronic illnesses live a long life, but is it a quality, productive life? A better diet leads to a better quality of life.”
Find the complete Southern Rural Development Center report, part of the Economic Research Service’s Research Innovation and Development Grants in Economics program, online at http://srdc.msstate.edu/opportunities/ridge/foodassistance.html. The SRDC is funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture.