Fat of the land

The controversy thing seems to be working out for me, so I’m going to try another hot-button issue.

There is something peculiar about our family. Okay, there are many peculiar things about our family, but I’m going to focus on this: not one of the three of us is overweight, or even close to it.

Why is this peculiar?

* We eat whatever we want with almost no regard to healthy-eating recommendations. We do eat a lot of vegetables, because we like them, but also plenty of red meat, butter, cheese, eggs, and sweets.
* Obesity runs in both of our families.
* We don’t follow any kind of exercise program.
* Our income is below the Seattle median. (Higher income is associated with less chance of obesity, though the association is growing weaker over time.)

There are also several factors working in our favor:

* Age. Laurie and I are in our early thirties. Iris is in her early single-digits. Younger people are much less likely to be overweight or obese than people over, say, 50.
* Education. We’re both reasonably highly educated, and this has a strong negative correlation with obesity. A person with a college degree is about half as likely to be obese as one who didn’t finish high school.
* Race. We’re white, which gives us an unfair advantage in this as in basically everything else.
* Factor X, which I will describe below.

Incidentally, the [American Obesity Association](http://www.obesity.org/) is a fount of statistics on this issue.

Here’s the question I’d like to answer: if you could do just one thing to improve your own and your children’s chances of maintaining a healthy weight, what is your best bet?

It’s not dieting. The failure rate of weight-reduction diets is so appalling (in the realm of 95 percent over five years) that they should probably be considered in the category of things you would have to be crazy to think you can succeed at, like winning at roulette or changing your sexual orientation.

Starting an exercise program is a better call. Here’s a 2003 study done at Duke. It randomly assigned subjects to three different exercise programs (light, moderate, and intense) for a nine-month trial. Six months after the trial, a majority of the subjects–none of whom were exercising regularly before the experiment–were still exercising, with those in the light and moderate groups most likely (about 70 percent) to continue. Furthermore, participants who had been in the light group were now exercising at an intensity more like the moderate group.

The study didn’t look at weight loss, but you can’t exercise at these levels without either losing weight or swapping body fat for muscle, which is just as good. I’m curious to know how many of the study participants are still exercising today, three years later, and whether they’ve lost weight. And, of course, outside of long-term studies like this, the majority of people who start exercise programs don’t stick with them very long. The abandonment rate is hard to measure definitively but is definitely better than the rate for dieting, probably because exercise makes you feel good in a way dieting doesn’t.

Which brings us to Factor X: the type of neighborhood you live in.

See, I sort of lied when I said that we don’t have a regular exercise program. In fact, I think we get more exercise than most Americans. That’s because we don’t own a car and run most of our errands on foot. The difference between this and a gym membership is that unless we move, we can’t opt out of this exercise. Even if we bought a car, the arrangement of our neighborhood would make it extremely inconvenient to use it for our typical errands.

Last year, Laurie brought home a free pedometer she’d been given at work. Naturally, since this was a new gadget coming into the house, I immediately confiscated it for my own use. A bit of Googling indicated that 5000 steps per day or less was defined as “sedentary,” and over 10,000 steps per day “active.” So I got up the next morning and clipped on the pedometer.

It was a pretty typical day. I went for a walk with Iris on Broadway. In the afternoon we all went down to the late Red Line for some steamed milk and cookies. (The cookies weren’t steamed.) At the end of the day I looked at the pedometer. I’d racked up over 16,000 steps. I have no idea where the pedometer is now, but I’d bet I’ve made close to 5000 steps already today, just on the way to this cafe.

This sounds like a just-so story, the kind of pure anecdote that would tend to make me want to throw the newspaper across the room if I didn’t read the newspaper online. Does your neighborhood style actually have any meaningful correlation with your weight?

It does. Larry Frank, a professor at the University of British Columbia, has conducted multiple studies on the topic. Here’s one he did in Atlanta which found that “people who live in neighborhoods with a mix of shops and businesses within easy walking distance are 7 percent less likely to be obese, lowering their relative risk of obesity by 35 percent.” Frank has also studied my own county, King County, WA, and found smaller but still significant correlations. The studies controlled for education, age, income, race, and sex.

This is not experimental data. It’s quite possible that there is some other confounding variable causing the correlation, something Frank didn’t think of. But I, for one, plan to continue eating like a food writer, so we’re not moving.

16 thoughts on “Fat of the land

  1. ctate

    When you say that you eat sweets, does that include soda pop? What about other things sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup?

    I get the impression that Iris’s diet in particular is pretty unusual for her age cohort in that she does not eat much HFCS. If you’re a young child eating only packaged food from the supermarket, it’s become quite hard to avoid quite a high HFCS intake.

  2. Jon

    Yeah, I suspect Factor X is a big one. So much so that when I move to the west coast, I plan to deliberately seek out such a neighborhood. I live in Mankato, MN, which is the largest city for about fifty miles around, with 37,819 people at last count. But the city center is dead, except for the bar “district”. We have three shopping malls, only one of which actually sees more than a hundred people per day, and that mall is on the edge of town, along with the Wal-Mart, Barnes and Noble, Best Buy, and so on. I have to drive to my university classes (and then take the shuttle to campus, since parking is a fifteen-minute walk away and I never have that much time), I have to drive to the grocery stores (as the only store within walking distance is a gas station), I have to drive everywhere. (The area is so hilly that biking is out of the question, and while the city does have a bus service, it’s too small and takes forever to get anywhere; I’d never get anything done.)

  3. mamster Post author

    ctate, I make no effort to avoid HFCS, but I don’t like soda very much. Iris likes to start the day with a cup of OJ or lemonade; the OJ doesn’t contain HFCS, but the lemonade does. We also snack on things that contain HFCS. I’d say that because we do so much home cooking, we eat less HFCS than the average person, but I’m sure we consume some every day.

    I’m very skeptical that HFCS–or any single factor–is largely responsible for rising obesity rates. Food overproduction is probably my favorite hypothesis, but it certainly can’t explain everything.

  4. Neil

    Now you’ve got me wondering how many steps a day I clock in working in the kitchen, not to mention just getting to the restaurant from the employee entrance (which takes about 10 minutes of fast walking). I need to look into getting me one of those ped-o-meter thingys.

    Speaking of losing weight and exercising, management at the “hotel” where I work has been on a health promotion kick lately, installing signs all over the back-of-house full of info and tips. One of the posters is specifically about walking and light exercise and says people who walk a certain amount every day have a “50% less chance of death”.

  5. mamster Post author

    If I walk twice that amount, do I have a 100% less chance of death? Because that’s the option I’m interested in.

  6. jarlsberger

    You may find that your ability to eat anything you want and not put on a lot of weight in the process declines precipitously as you get older…at least that’s been my experience.

  7. Vince

    I consider myself something of an expert on obesity…. ;-)

    The one BIG issue you left out is portion control. Americans eat way too much, including this particular American. Starting with being told to clean your plate as a kid up through restaurant providing ‘value’ through huge portions, we’re constantly encouraged to push our stomachs to the limit. My impression is that you and Laurie eat reasonable portions most of the time.

  8. neil d

    I wholeheartedly agree that exercise = good and diets = useless, with one exception: When I switched from refined to whole-wheat products, with no other change in my diet, I lost 20 pounds. And I wasn’t even especially trying to lose weight, just eat healthier.

    This would tend to mesh with ctate’s link about the troubles caused by a high-glycemic-index (among other things) diet. And with Vince’s about portion control, for that matter, since refined carbs tend to make you want to eat more, whereas whole grains sit in your stomach like lead shot.

  9. mamster Post author

    Vince, I totally agree with you, but I didn’t leave out portion control, I lumped it in under diets. I think you’re right that I tend to eat relatively small portions, but I have absolutely no good explanation for why that should be. I expect it’s something like people who have a defective alcohol metabolism pathway and therefore feel sick whenever they drink alcohol and therefore don’t become alcoholics: when I overeat, I feel really sick. I assume this has been studied, but I know almost nothing about satiety research.

    neil d, I will email your whole grains idea to my future self, for when my sense of satiety wears off.

  10. Vince

    Like neil d, I ran a little experiment a couple years ago where I avoided most carbs and those I did eat where whole grains, avoided refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup and didn’t drink any alcohol other than red wine, and that in limited quantities. I dropped over 20 pounds in a month, but fell off the wagon soon after.

    Mamster, if you want to understand why I’m fat and you’re not, we should do a parallel journal of eating and activity for a week, I would guess it would make the issue clear and that the differences wouldn’t be focused in any single cause.

  11. mamster Post author

    Vince, that’s a great idea, although aren’t you worried about the Hawthorne Effect?

  12. Vince

    Complete disclosure, I had to Google ‘Hawthorne Effect’. ;-) I know the principle, I just didn’t know that was the name of it.

    I think I can rely on my deeply ingrained habits and natural laziness to counteract it…

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