Archived Story

Thank God for … Missouri?

Published 4:36pm Monday, April 15, 2013

When it comes to ranking U.S. states, we longtime Alabamians are used to saying “Thank God for Mississippi.” It may be a stereotype, but for decades it seemed that our two states occupied No. 49 and No. 50 at the bottom of many national lists.

So it’s only natural that we’d say “Thank God for Mississippi.” Like that old joke about two guys being chased by a bear – you just have to be faster than the guy in last place.

The truth is that stereotypes are often wrong. Alabama is near the top in many coveted lists. Take a look at states with the most beautiful lakes in America, the best places to locate auto-related industry, the state with the most numbers of plant and animal species or the home of NCAA football champs, to name a few.

Anyway, one stereotype that I wouldn’t have disputed is our state’s reputation for being home to the fattest citizens in America. Alabama has a big problem – a big problem with being too big. We all know it. We all see it every day. So I was shocked at the results of a study released this week by the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

It turns out that the West North Central region, which includes the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri, is home to the highest percentage of obese Americans. In this region, 41 percent of the population is obese.

I’ve been hunting in Iowa and Kansas for years, and I can attest to the difference between a typical Alabama 8-point and one of those triple-XL, corn-fed Iowa bucks. But I can honestly say that I’ve never noticed that there were more obese folks in corn country than down here in fried chicken land. Turns out I wasn’t looking very hard.

Our region – the East South Central U.S. made up of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky – is considerably thinner with only 31 percent of the population tipping the scales to the obese rating. That’s a big difference. In fact, UAB said that our region was close to the middle of the pack when it comes to rankings.

The East South Central region placed fifth out of nine regions when it comes to the percentage of obese residents.

“We were thinking since people living in the South are generally more hypertensive and have higher rates of diabetes and stroke, it would be the fattest region,” said George Howard, a professor in the

Department of Biostatistics in UAB’s School of Public Health. “But when we looked at our data, people in the south were really not the fattest.”

So why have Alabama and Mississippi long been known as the fattest states in America? It turns out that statistically, our states must be near the top of the list of honest residents. Most state- by-state obesity ratings that gave us our bad reputation are determined by self-reported weights and heights.

“Asking someone how much they weigh is probably the second worst question behind how much money they make,” Howard said. “From past research, we know that women tend to underreport their weight, and men tend to over-report their height.”

Except in the South, where folks apparently tell it like it is. It turns out that if you actually measure the height and weight of Americans to determine whether they’re obese, the folks in the corn belt are have been fudging for years.

“The South has had very bad obesity problems, but not worse than some other regions,” Howard said.

To that Alabamians can finally say, “Thank God for … Missouri.”

Boone is publisher of The Outlook.

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