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.
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.
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.
“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.