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.
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Researchers have linked America’s huge jump in obesity over the last 20 years to fast food marketing – specifically how human brains tend to allow restaurants, by virtue of portion sizes and prices, to define how much is enough to eat. Others have pointed to the decline of outdoor play in favor of organized activities as a cause. There are deeper aspirations in the human psyche, too, to store calories when food is inexpensive and widely available – which in the US has become 24/7/365. That instinct may be greater in people who have less. The South, after all, is the nation’s poorest region and Mississippi the country’s poorest state.Skip to next paragraph
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“Collecting the maximum number of calories with the least amount of effort is, after all, the dream of every creature,” concludes the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert in an essay on America’s weight gain.
If that’s true, then it may only make sense why denizens of the South – where the food tradition, not to mention the vittles themselves, is so rich and where hard field work has nearly disappeared – may be particularly susceptible to weight gain.
As a region, Southerners moved off the land en masse just a couple of generations ago, a migration that partly clashed with the rise of cable TV, the Internet and video games. That cultural and demographic confluence may also have played a role in creating demand for larger and more indulgent portions.
“I think part of what’s happened is we’ve taken ritual events, like harvest events, where there’s going to be indulgence and unusual pleasure of one kind or another and made them into things that are widely available and routine,” says Ted Ownby, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture in Oxford, Miss. “That makes me think that any big change will come from a larger change in society rather than a new food pyramid.”
Another cultural clue to the Southern weight gap surrounds attitudes around exercise as distinct from hard, physical work – a distinction that’s being tapped into, for example, by a PR campaign called “Let’s Go Walkin’, Mississippi!”
“In many parts of the South, if you’re walking by the side of the road, you’re marked as not being able to afford a car – it’s not a virtuous activity,” says Mr. Edge. “While hard work is valorized in the South, purposeful exercise is not valorized in the whole of the South as it is in other regions of the country.”
The South’s waistline, as a whole, has not yet stopped growing, according to the CDC. All 12 of the states that had obesity levels above 30 percent were in the Fried Chicken Belt: The Deep South and lower Midwest. The slimmest Americans are found in the Northeast and the Mountain West, particularly Colorado, where 1 in 5 residents are nevertheless obese.
"We've got to change some of the culture to make the healthy choice the easy choice," Victor Sutton, director of Mississippi’s Office of Preventive Health, told the AP. "We're trying to get obesity to level off before we can start to get the rates to go down."
For now, in other words, it may not be enough to hold the slaw.
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