You’ve probably seen various versions of an “obesity map” like the one above. Most of them show higher obesity rates in the South, which has led to a lot of tsk-tsking and speculation about possible reasons for the regional differences. TIME magazine ran an article in 2009 titled Why Are Southerners So Fat? that offered the usual explanations: It could be all that southern-fried food with gravy. Or perhaps obesity is just a marker for poverty, since more Southerners are poor. Or maybe it’s that people living in the South don’t spend as much time outdoors in the summer because it’s too hot and humid. The problem might even be a lack of public transportation, according to the TIME reporter:
That’s another problem, by the way: the South doesn’t have many bus stops. Public transportation is paltry, and for most people, the best way to get around is by car. “You don’t really think of riding the train as exercise, but at least you have to walk a few blocks to get to the stop,” says Bassett. States like Mississippi and Tennessee also have a surprising lack of sidewalks, discouraging even the most eager pedestrians. Many roads are narrower than those in the North — where streets have wider shoulders to accommodate winter snow — and people who want to bike or jog find themselves uncomfortably close to traffic.
Poverty, fried food, humid weather, not enough sidewalks, too much sweet tea … take your pick. But there’s another possible explanation that most of the obesity experts haven’t considered:
Those damned Yankees might just be a bunch of big fat liars.
Obesity rates are calculated by the Centers for Disease Control based on phone surveys. According to a new study, people who answer those surveys might not be (surprise!) completely honest:
The South often gets tagged with having the most obese population.
But it doesn’t appear to be true, a University of Alabama at Birmingham study suggests.
The study recently published in the journal Obesity found that there’s a significantly higher percentage of obese people in a region of central and northwest states including Minnesota, Kansas and North and South Dakota.
“What we found is the West North Central region has about 41 percent obesity compared to 31 percent obesity in the southern region that includes Alabama and Mississippi,” said George Howard, professor in the Department of Biostatics at UAB. “By the way, 31 percent is not a good thing — but it’s not at the bottom.”
How did Southerners get such a fat reputation? Apparently because they are more truthful.
Yup. The researchers found when they compared what people say they weigh versus what they actually weigh, the Northerners were more likely to … uh … underestimate their weight. Men in the North were also more likely to overestimate their height, which reduces their calculated BMI.
Thanks to the inability of Northerners to accurately estimate their heights and weights, the regional data on obesity may not be relevant after all:
The study analyzed the weights in the nine geographic regions used by the U.S. Census Bureau.
It found that the West North Central region, which includes Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and North and South Dakota, ranked fourth in obesity by the telephone survey results. But when actually weighed in the REGARDS study, people from that region ranked first in the nation for obesity.
In the telephone survey results, the East South Central region, which includes Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky, ranked highest. But when weighed, that southern region ranked fifth.
That’s fifth out of nine national regions, mind you. As I wrote after we moved to Tennessee, I was surprised at how few obese people I saw in our immediate area. I see a higher proportion of obese people in my hometown in Illinois than I do here, but I figured perhaps that’s because Franklin is in a prosperous part of Tennessee.
“It is hard to know exactly what is going on, but my speculation is that people in the South are telling the truth more,” Howard said. “Perhaps there is not as much stigma connected to obesity as say someone in California, or in this case, Minnesota.”
Oh, I don’t think it’s because Southerners are less ashamed of being fat, Dr. Howard. I think it’s because more Northerners are less ashamed of being big fat liars. There are a lot more religious people in the South; perhaps they consider lying to the CDC to be a sin. (I’m not religious, so I consider lying to government officials to be a patriotic duty.) Sure, we grow some big fat liars in the South, but they tend to run for office, serve out their terms in Washington, then move to New York or California and write fictional autobiographies or make scary documentaries.
Anyway, since I’m sure the folks at TIME magazine wouldn’t want us to think they secretly enjoyed portraying the conservative South as a region populated by a bunch of fat Bubbas, I’m looking forward to their upcoming article, Why Northerners Are So Fat – And Why They Can’t Read A Scale.