What to Do When Zipcodes Predict Obesity Levels

Obesity Zipcodes in Seattle

Zipcodes are a good indicator of a person’s obesity level, claims Dr. Adam Drewnowski, the director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. In a fascinating interview for Australian media he says:

The socioeconomic dimension of the obesity epidemic becomes apparent once you start looking at maps where the obese people live…obesity rates in Seattle can vary by a factor of five depending on address…Obesity rates may be as low as 5 per cent or 2 per cent in one area and 20 or 30 per cent in another. It all had to do with address.

This harsh truth exemplifies more than anything that obesity is a social and economic challenge to be dealt with by government agencies, and not solely by individuals. The poor pay less and get more calories, while the rich pay more to get less calories. Or as Drewnowski frames it – making a decision to eat healthier entails economic costs.

That’s because nutrient dense foods like fresh vegetables and fruit tend to be more expensive than calorie dense sugar-fat-salt combos that are manufactured from subsidized crops.

“It’s difficult to over-eat celery or spinach – low energy density; it is so easy to over-eat chocolate and potato chips. So the paradox is this – you actually pay less to eat more, and the wealthy pay more to eat less.”

So while individuals can try to optimize by buying seasonal produce, eating less meat and more legumes, the easy / default choice (as economists know) is to buy the unhealthy and convenient foods.

Drewnowski suggests a public health measure in the form of an economic incentive to eat healthy. This, by shifting government subsidies to healthier crops – fruits and vegetables. Michelle Obama is trying to convince supermarket chains to open shop in low income neighborhoods known as food deserts. Others are calling for soda bans and taxes.

What do you think? Should the USDA take money allocated to corn and soy farmers and hand it over to growers of kale and celery? Should sugary foods be taxed?

(Disclosure: Adam Drewnowski is an adviser to Fooducate.)

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  • http://twitter.com/kenleebow N=1

    This study reminds me of the astute and candid observation that Dr. Nortin Hadler, author of Rethinking Aging, made: If you want to do good: Don’t take the Coca-Cola machines out of the school. Take the school out of the neighborhood.

  • Randiclam

    Every effort should be made to improve the nutrition available to all levels of society. Doing nothing, does nothing.

  • http://shadesofgreenneo.blogspot.com/ Starsx7

    or the fact that the areas with a low income also have more then it share of fast food… parents the work 2 jobs and fine that easier then cooking healthy food for the family… as far as money to farmers I get it but part of me worries they would do the same as the corn and soy farmers use it to produce GMO products.. how about teaching people how to cook? Home Ec is in the past but yet it is so needed… How about if you get food stamps you must attend a class to teach you to make healthy food… can use part of the money for that!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Manuel/718882229 John Manuel

    Absolutely. The change that needs to occur should start in our school systems, and kale and spinach farmers should most certainly be aided through subsidization. The fact that our FDA, and the Dept. of Agriculture have been persuaded by BIG FOOD, or Big Businesses demonstrates not only a need for reform on a social level, but on a legislative level, to keep cronies from working for both BIG FOOD, and the FDA. Wasssssup!

  • James Cooper

    I don’t think there are any studies showing that taxing sugary foods helps. If there are we need to see them. Otherwise it amounts to a tax on the poor, which is not too clever an idea.

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