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Mississippi most obese state: Southern diet or culture on the skids?

The Deep South has some of the highest obesity rates in the nation, according to the CDC, and Mississippi, once again, is the fattest. But it's not just the fried food that's to blame.

By Staff writer / August 14, 2012

Trays of fried okra, peas and carrots, beans, rice, corn, blackeyed peas, ham, chicken, and chopped steak, attract customers to the one-room 'Country Boy's Produce' in downtdown Jackson, Miss., in 2004.

Rogelio Solis/AP

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Atlanta

Fried catfish, hush puppies, piles of pork, shrimp po’boys – the delicacies of the South, as a recent obesity report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta seems to suggest, are also its enemy.

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Southern states are, on par, the chubbiest (with Mississippi topping the list for the sixth year with 1 in 3 adults technically obese).

Most curiously, while the Southern diet hasn’t really changed much, the percentage of Mississippians who are obese has more than doubled in the last 20 years, from 15 to 35 percent since 1991 – mirroring in large part what the CDC calls a “dramatic” belt-expansion across the country over that same time span. (A 5-foot-9 adult weighing 203 pounds is considered baseline obese by the CDC.)

But is the salty, rich grub that’s become synonymous with the region really the key reason why the South is losing the battle of the bulge? Or is that slab of BBQ ribs too easy of a target?

Some researchers suggest there are deeper cultural explanations to the Southern weight gain that go beyond fried chicken – including attitudes toward work and exercise, cultural norms for portion size, and the myriad daily decisions and associations that go into deciding what’s for supper – and that can inform the broader phenomenon of an increasingly fat America.

In that light, the culinary particulars of the Fried Chicken Belt are becoming increasingly interesting to researchers, some of whom are using the South and its distinctive grub to peer more closely at the  relationship between food, weight, and culture by studying a region that continues, thanks to the CDC’s careful waistline monitoring, to bear the brunt of foodie stereotypes and fat jokes.

“I think what we as Southerners take exception to are the stereotypes that don’t reflect the complexity and contradictions of the region, but Southerners are trying to puzzle through the obesity problem, and how to do it in a thoughtful way that does not rely on the fried chicken trope,” says John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, Miss. “The real paradox is that we’re the region with the most munificent growing season of any, and why is this place that could take such advantage of a vegetable-based diet growing fatter and fatter?”

The University of Mississippi-based food culture research organization, where staff describe themselves as “Citizens of the Banana Pudding Republic” who once constructed a “bacon tree” with pork belly fruit, has launched an investigation into those and other paradoxes of Southern obesity. They’ll publish their findings in an upcoming edition of their magazine, Gravy.

To be sure, local variations in diet may explain only a small part of the national obesity picture. "Certainly the Deep South has many of the highest rates, but it is a national problem,” Dr. Jim McVay, chief of health promotion for Alabama’s Department of Public Health, tells the Associated Press.

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