Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Diet, Exercise, and Temples of the Holy Ghost

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Diet, Exercise, and Temples of the Holy Ghost

Article excerpt

From Mississippi to Kentucky coal-mining country, churches are taking on the public health crisis of obesity by DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM

IS OBESITY A "Southern thing," like drawling accents, gospel music, and excessive devotion to college football? Well, as a native Southerner, I have to admit that increasingly it looks that way.

Obesity is, of course, a national problem. In 1990, 34 states had obesity rates between 10 and 14 percent, but no state had a 15 percent obesity rate. By 2010 every state in the country was more than 20 percent obese.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as of 2010 there were 12 states with obesity rates of more than 30 percent. All but one of them are in the South, and that one exception - Michigan - may blame its problem on the many Southern migrants it received during the 1950s and "60s. And the closer you look, the worse the picture gets. The highest concentrations of obesity were found in six states: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina in the Deep South, and the largely Appalachian states Kentucky and West Virginia.

The causes of obesity are the same for everyone. You eat too much, you don't get enough exercise, and you become obese. But why do people eat too much and move too little? As for any human behavior, the causes are complex and ambiguous, but the timing of the obesity outbreak suggests some answers. The upward trend in obesity began in the 1980s and '90s, when cable TV became widespread in American households, encouraging a couch-potato lifestyle. This was also when the two-income family became the norm. With both parents working full-time, home-cooked meals were often replaced by fat-laden fast-food dinners washed down with giant servings of sugary soda pop. In the subsequent two decades, both of these trends accelerated, with widespread internet access making physical activity even rarer.

From the beginning the obesity epidemic has hit hardest among the poorest Americans. Supermarkets tend to locate where the money is, but fast-food restaurants are eager to locate among the poor, where the "dollar menu" exerts a powerful pull. In addition, exercise is more difficult in a crime-ridden urban environment or in a rural one with few public parks and no sidewalks. And gym fees or exercise equipment simply aren't a priority for people who can't pay their electric bills.

The South experienced all of these national trends and at the end came out way ahead in obesity. Partly we can blame that on higher man average Southern poverty rates, but, at some point, the subject of the traditional Southern diet becomes unavoidable. We are, after all, the people who invented Kentucky Fried Chicken and Coca Cola. The fact is that, traditionally, we like to eat everything fried, even vegetables. And what we don't fry, we like to boil with a big hunk of fatty pork, and maybe a little sugar. These Southern peculiarities are rooted in a history of rural poverty. Frying is quicker than baking when you have to get back to the fields, and frying doesn't heat up the house the way an oven does; before air conditioning, that was a big deal. The extra calories from grease also helped make people feel full when rations were short, and the pork in the vegetables was a bit of protein when there was no other meat on the table.

That way of eating worked for our ancestors. Fifty years ago a life of hard physical labor, in a world without air conditioning, was the norm for most Southerners, African American and white. Now the jobs that required physical labor are gone. In their place is less vigorous service work, or unemployment. We have the same cable or satellite TV and internet as everyone else and the same fast-food chains. In other words, everything about our world changed, except our diet, and that's why the CDC map of obesity in America glows fire-engine red across the lower tiers.

The good news is that today many Southerners, African American and white, are finding in their Christian faith and their faith communities resources to combat the pressing public health crisis of obesity. …

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