USA First Look

Why has Jackson, Miss., been labeled 'the fattest city' in the US?

The top 20 cities on the list are all in the southern United States, with Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue coming in at the bottom.

A California man exercises with a jog along the beach as surfers head into the ocean in La Jolla, Calif.
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According to personal finance website WalletHub, Jackson, Miss., is the fattest city in America. The organization says that Americans spend a collective $316 billion per year in treatments of obesity-related health problems, losing a further $8.6 billion in productivity losses every year for the same reason.

WalletHub released its ranking of the 2017 Fattest Cities in America list on Wednesday. The list was based on analysis of the 100 most populous cities in the United States with regard to various weight-related factors to create the rankings. Jackson scored high on a number of factors, leading it to be ranked as the No. 1 fattest overall. The least fat metro area overall was Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, in Washington.

"WalletHub's analysts compared 100 of the most populated US metro areas across 17 key indicators of weight-related problems,” reports the website. "Our data set ranges from share of physically inactive adults to projected obesity rates by 2030 to healthy-food access."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over a third of US adults – 36.5 percent – are obese. But the top 20 fattest cities on the WalletHub list were located in the Southern US – and most of those were located in Southeastern states. While WalletHub offered no systemic explanation for the trend, poverty and socioeconomic status often play a role in regional obesity rates. As Mattea Kramer wrote in an editorial for the Christian Science Monitor in 2011:

A researcher at the University of Washington found that an income level that qualifies a family for food stamp assistance makes it nearly impossible to put healthy and balanced meals on the table. Though food stamp benefits are calculated to allow families to buy the lowest-cost foods that are still nutritious, the USDA's own research shows that food prices vary widely across the country. That means if you live in a region with high prices (such as the Northeast), it may be unaffordable for you to feed your family healthy meals.

Obesity isn't entirely – or even primarily – a question of willpower, but has a lot to do with socioeconomic status. Federal policy should address this by making healthy foods cheaper.

Journalists have popularized a link between cheap junk food and subsidies to the corn industry. But this isn't the reason why junk food is cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables. Even with no subsidies for corn production, fresh produce is more expensive because it has a short shelf life. It has to be picked, shipped, stocked, purchased, and eaten quickly to prevent spoilage. Rolling back commodity supports won't make healthier options the cheapest.

Another potential explanation for the high rates of obesity in the Southeast is the political makeup of the region, which lean in a more conservative direction. Matthew Kreuter, a professor of public health at Washington University, St. Louis, told the Monitor last December that liberal states tend to be more concerned about public health policy than conservative ones. 

"There are clearly states that have been more innovative in their health policies than others, and there are some states where social norms are more conducive to healthy living," said Dr. Kreuter. "All of these factors play a role in how healthy the people who live in a given place are."

According to WalletHub, diet isn't the only factor at play that affects obesity rates, and many of the fattest cities on the list also had high rates of physical inactivity among adults. McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas, for instance, had the lowest rates of physical activity and ranked at No. 4 in the list of fattest cities overall. The city with the smallest number of physically inactive adults, by contrast, was San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif., which came in at number 92 overall.