MSN published the newest state-by-state obesity figures on their web site today. Here are the states with the highest and lowest rankings. (Note: in this table and all other tables, I’m skipping Washington, D.C. It’s a city, for Pete’s sake, not a state.)
As you can see, southern states dominate the obesity list. Quite a few articles have been published that attempt to answer the question Why Are Southerners So Fat? — that was actually the title of one. I believe we’re looking at two factors, which are in part related: poverty and race. Cheaper foods tend to be high-carb foods, so it would make sense that poor people tend to eat high-carbohydrate diets.
Tennessee has the third-highest obesity rate. And yet as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t see many fat people in our area. In fact, in a list of county-by-county statistics, I saw that the average adult BMI in our county is 25. Our county also has the highest per-capita income in the state.
But I also believe race plays somewhat of a role apart from poverty. Here’s the same list of states again, with another column showing each state’s rank by the African-American proportion of the population:
It’s hardly a perfect correlation, but the correlation is there. The southern states tend to have a higher proportion of African-Americans than the northern states.
As I mentioned in Fat Head, African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately labeled as overweight or obese, and to a large extent, the label isn’t fair. I’ve had a few pinheads in cyberspace accuse me of being a racist for stating that on average, African-Americans and Latinos are genetically pre-disposed to be thicker than whites. They may as well yell “racist!” if I say that those same groups are pre-disposed to have darker skin. We’re talking about physiology here, pure and simple.
If you look up studies on osteoporosis, you’ll see it stated over and over that African-American and Latina women are the least susceptible. You’ll also find the reason: denser, thicker bones — African Americans in particular. You’ll also see it stated that Asians on average have thinner bones than whites.
Go figure … given the same height, smaller-boned people tend to be lighter, and thicker-boned people tend to be heavier. The thicker-boned people also tend to carry around more muscle. In addition, I’ve seen it stated in research papers that African-Americans on average tend to have bigger thigh muscles — some of the largest muscles in the body.
So if we’re determining who’s overweight or obese by simply (and stupidly) comparing height to weight, African-Americans are going to have the highest BMI, followed by Latinos, whites, and Asians. Yes, people with the highest BMI scores may also tend to be the fattest overall. But the statistics are skewed.
As long as I was looking up data and making correlations, I decided to have a little fun with another set of statistics. Below are the highest and lowest rates of cancer by state. (#1 = highest rate of cancer, #50 = lowest.)
Northern states dominate the top 10, while the bottom 10 is made up largely of sunshine states. Most likely, we’re looking at the effects of vitamin D. I was curious as to why relatively sunny states like Kentucky and West Virginia have such high rates of cancer, so I looked up smoking statistics. Sure enough, West Virginia ranks #1 and Kentucky ranks #3, after Indiana.
But here’s what’s really interesting: New Jersey, with the highest overall cancer rate, ranks #49 in smoking. Maine ranks #27, and Rhode Island ranks #35. In those northern states, it’s not smoking that’s causing the high cancer rate.
In previous posts, I’ve tried to pound home the point that correlations don’t tell us much. Traits that are correlated often have independent causes … and yet researchers and health reporters too often assume that if two traits are related, one must be causing the other.
Look at the table below, where I’ve put the cancer rankings alongside the obesity rankings. (I’ve removed Kentucky and West Virginia because of the high smoking rate — we’ll call that a confounding variable.)
You know what I see there? I see evidence that obesity reduces your risk of developing cancer. Or, to adopt the style I often see in health-article headlines, LOWER BODY WEIGHT RAISES CANCER RISK.
Somebody get T. Colin Campbell on the phone …