Strange Statistic of the Day: Red State More Obese?

by: Chris Bowers

Mon Aug 27, 2007 at 20:20

I don't have any particular theories on why this is the case, in fact I am actually pretty surprised by this set of statistics, but it appears that so-called "red" states are, on average, more obese than "blue" states:

There appears to be two correlations here: red states are more obese than blue states, and Mountain West states are less obese than non-Mountain West states. The Mountain West connection makes sense, as higher altitude and lower population density should result in both more frequent and more strenuous physical activity. However, outside the Mountain West, the almost perfect correlation between obesity and red states vs. blue states is very surprising. Check it out, with the states Bush won twice in bold:

Obesity Rankings Of Non-Mountain West States
1. Mississippi
2. West Virginia
3. Alabama
4. Louisiana
5. South Carolina
6. Tennessee
7. Kentucky
8. Arkansas
9. Indiana
10. Oklahoma

11. Michigan
12. Missouri
13. Texas
14. Georgia
15. Ohio
16. Alaska
17. North Carolina
18. Nebraska
19. North Dakota
20. South Dakota

21. Iowa
22. Wisconsin
23. Pennsylvania
24. Virginia
25. Illinois
26. Maryland
27. Kansas
28. Minnesota
29. Delaware
30. Oregon
31. Washington
32. Maine
34. Florida
36. California
37. New York
40. D.C.
41. New Jersey
46. Rhode Island
47. Connecticut
48. Vermont
49. Massachusetts

That is an almost perfect, correlation, with only Michigan, Kansas and Virginia breaking the pattern (although I guess the Supreme Court and Katherine Harris did award Florida to Bush twice). For some reason, more conservative states are also more obese. It isn't age, since Florida and Pennsylvania, the two oldest states, are not particularly obese. It isn't income, since red states tend to have lower average incomes than blue states. There might be a regional connection, since liberal New Englanders tend to be quite svelte, and more conservative southerners tend to be more obese. The truth is, I don't really understand why there is a connection here, but I thought it was strange enough to be worthy of pointing out.

Chris Bowers :: Strange Statistic of the Day: Red State More Obese?

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I too have been pondering this fact... (0.00 / 0)
...since I first learned of it some months ago.

I do believe I have the answer:

Overindulgence in....


Peace, Health and Prosperity for Everyone.

So, if you want to lose weight (0.00 / 0)
vote for a Democrat.

I may be misunderstanding. .. (4.00 / 6)
but if income is generally lower in these red states, might it not be more affordable to consume calories from cheap carbs and trans fats?

What are the relative incidences of heart disease to go along with this.

Also, is there an general correlation between obesity and education level?

I don't know (4.00 / 1)
I don't know the answers to any of these questions. I do know that there is a connection between higher education and a longer life span, and between obesity and shorter life span, but that is the best I can do.

[ Parent ]
Yes (0.00 / 0)
It isn't age, since Florida and Pennsylvania, the two oldest states, are not particularly obese. It isn't income, since red states tend to have lower average incomes than blue states.

The answer is: yes, there is a negative relationship between obesity and income - would you expect something different? This is one reason why universal health care coverage is important.

And you can't rule out age as a factor based on two states not being "particularly obese", even though age might ultimately not have much relation with obesity. As gearmonkey suggests, a simple regression across congressional districts could look at a few different variables.

The other question is: how sensitive are the results to the choice of variables? Ranking by percentage of obesity could have different rankings from percentage of overweight, or average bmi, or median bmi. So, the underlying distribution is vastly simplified by using a summary statistic, and which one you choose might change the rankings. I think the best summary statistic for this topic, if we're thinking in terms of performance measurement, is percentage of population with a healthy BMI. Then states should be making progress over time to bring this to as high a level as possible.

Finally, BMI is not a perfect indicator of health, because it is only composed of height and weight. Depending on diet, exercise, muscle mass, genetics, and other factors, having a high (or low) BMI does not always translate into negative health outcomes.

If we want to choose a single health indicator to compare across states, shouldn't we be looking at life expectancy? That's the ultimate end of a healthy life, in addition to quality of living (but that's harder to summarize in a single variable). A good financial indicator might be yearly non-preventative health care costs per capita.

[ Parent ]
A bit more on BMI (0.00 / 0)
The other thing about BMI is that "healthy" ranges vary based on age, race, and gender. So looking at them statewide, especially without correcting for demographic composition, muddies the interpretation.

This 1994 UN study examines BMI across many topics and countries.

What is particularly informative is that BMI is more highly correlated with fat mass (FM), r = 0.87, than with % fat, r = 0.75 and that BMI is highly correlated with measures of leanness, i.e. fat-free mass (FFM), r = 0.68, and arm and thigh muscle circumferences, r= 0.78 and 0.81. Strangely, limb circumferences, uncorrected for fatness were even more highly correlated, r = 0.83-0.91. The explanation for this may be that the more specific or meaningful measures of body composition such as limb muscle circumferences are measured less reliably than the simple limb circumferences (Micozzi, 1990). However, BMI and weight:height indices in general are as much measures of size as of composition and as much measures of leanness as of fatness. The interpretation of BMI in terms of body composition can be expected to vary in populations with different sizes and shapes.

There is now clear evidence that those with a low BMI have more sickness, a lower work capacity, limited social activity, and a lower income. Mothers with a low BMI also have a greater proportion of low birth weight babies compared with those of normal BMI.

There are significant differences in the relationships of body composition to BMI but for many purposes and over the range of BMI 20-25 kg/m2 these may not be important. Shape, as described by [sitting-height/height] ratios, affects the BMI and its interpretation. To interpret BMI in terms of body composition more specifically it is necessary to take into account sex, age and ethnicity.

[ Parent ]
Yes! (4.00 / 3)
I think that's a clear possibility.  If you're shopping on a budget you're going to be buying a lot more cheap calories and trans fats.  Higher income consumers can afford fruits and vegetables.

[ Parent ]
Divorce and obesity but probably poverty (0.00 / 0)
I was thinking maybe a link between divorce and obesity since divorce rates are also higher in red states but more than likely it probably the poverty in the redder states leading consumers to purchase cheap high trans fat, caloric foodstuffs. Being from MI myself, it would be interesting to see the breakdown by congressional district and then by income level either by district or county.  I'd say the correlation would tie closer to income.  If there is an overlap with conservative politics it is likely linked to conservatives woeful treatment of the poor.

[ Parent ]
"Red states tend to have lower average incomes than blue states." (4.00 / 2)
Isn't this just it? I think I've read that those with lower incomes are more likely to eat cheap, unhealthy, and fattening foods, rather than, say, pricier organic produce. Also, there might be correlations in education levels/nutritional knowledge levels, and income levels. Are income levels, on the average, lower in redder states? This is pure speculation, of course, but it might be worth investigating further.

I see (0.00 / 0)
Pachacutec got there ahead of me.

[ Parent ]
Makes sense, actually (0.00 / 0)
  Red-state culture is more associated with high-fat, high-calorie diets than blue-state culture.

  Or put another way, there are probably far more French and Ethiopian restaurants per capita in Boston than in Tulsa...

"We judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their actions. It is a great convenience." -- Howard Zinn

US Census Bureau (0.00 / 0)
As per US Census Bureau:

M1402. Percent of People 25 Years and Over Who Have Completed a Bachelor's Degree: 2005

M1401. Percent of People 25 Years and Over Who Have Completed High School (Includes Equivalency): 2005

With a cursory glance, education is suggestive... but it looks like there's a fair amount of wiggle room associating obesity with educational attainment.

If you want to really squint and look for corollaries... (0.00 / 0)
you can look at all that census data by congressional district (the 109th, which was in session when this data was taken).  If someone were so inclined this could be compared to the PVI of each district to see if a pattern emerged.  Could be an interesting research project...

I'm glad it's done

[ Parent ]
Most of the key variables have been covered (0.00 / 0)
Age, race, individual income, education, size of household and household income are all tied together. In combination they may represent lifestyle habits that directly impact obesity. Also, the quality of public and/or state supported healthcare may impact general health in a population and, by extension, obesity. I haven't looked to see if there are any studies using socio-economic variables to predict obesity. I can't imagine that there wouldn't be.

Quite a few articles on the web (0.00 / 0)
I found this at the top of the list on a google search:


This one was a summary of studies looking at socio-economic indicators of obesity. There are a number of studies on the web from medical journals and humanitarian organizations.

Aside from (4.00 / 1)
the socioeconomic factors, including education levels, blue states are urban and people walk more in cities. Driving everywhere is bad for you.

This one's easy. (0.00 / 0)
Food is the Protestant vice.

They aren't supposed to drink, smoke or have much sex. It's not that they don't do those things, but when they do, they feel terribly conflicted about it. They're not like the Catholics, Jews or, God forbid, seculars that you find in other parts of the country, who can spread their pleasures out and be a little more well-rounded in their approach to life.

Eating is the only bodily pleasure Protestants can indulge in freely.

(For what it's worth, I developed this theory from watching my relatives at family reunions.)

Montani semper liberi

ooh, and check this: (0.00 / 0)

Pastordan has a map of dominant religious affiliation by state. Red is Baptist and Mormon, because their voting patterns are similar. You know they call sugar the Mormon cocaine?

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Being fat (0.00 / 0)
Having come to MO from Philly I have put on weight. Here's why I think I did. It is very difficult to be satisfied here by what you eat. People don't know how to cook because as Barbra Streisand said in Prince of Tides, they don't know how to eat (paraphrasing).

So it is difficult to find a good restaurant even. The farmers' markets are good but a lot of towns discourage their being visible and user friendly to buy from.  7am to 11 or 12 am on Saturday morning is not my idea of encouraging them. My neon red town won't let them sell in the town square because it might hurt the overpriced and lousy supermarket in town.

Anyway it is hard to feel really satisfied when you eat here and gradually you get used to eating fast food at least some of the time. It stops tasting rotten to you as you get used to it. And it is widely available. And good well cooked food is literally non existent.

Also food is a cultural activity. Eating and dining and good conversation is part of culture. Here they line up at the trough (lots of buffets) and shovel it in. Tonight I watched a high schooler from a baseball team stop at McDonald's and he ate his fries by holding up the carton and dumping it in his mouth. I never saw that before.

astonishingly, inequality plays a role (0.00 / 0)
It's highly correlated with income inequality. Here's one study among many...

I like the conclusion there:

Obesity, diabetes mortality, and calorie consumption were associated with income inequality in developed countries. Increased nutritional problems may be a consequence of the psychosocial impact of living in a more hierarchical society.

Obesity is on the inequality pile along with about a thousand other negative quality of life (and life or death, like violence) statistics. It really sucks.

What an odd statistical correlation. (0.00 / 0)
If you throw out the so-called Mountain West states (which are???), then political "red" states appear to be more obese than political "blue" states.

Unfortunately, the Mountain West states (such as MT, WY, UT, CO,  etc.) are politically "red."

If you have to dismiss or throw out 8 or 9 states (about 17 percent of the total) which is 30 percent of the "red" states, you don't have any correlation between political party preferences & obesity.

yeah but Montana is.... (0.00 / 0)
........not quite as low as the statistics say. Take it from a native (and see my comment below).

[ Parent ]
Sugar and Frying (0.00 / 0)
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that since poorer Southern families were historically unable to afford anything but the lowest grades meats and foods, they tended to make said foods more palatable through the most cost-effective means available, usually deep-frying or coating in sugar (ie - cornbread).

Statistics don't tell the whole story. (0.00 / 0)
Just from experience living in Montana and Washington, there is no way that Montana is the more fit of the two. One of the wonders that I noted when I came to Washington was the fact that there was a small, rare sighting of an obese person.

In Montana it is quite the opposite. I mean that's how I know I'm back in Montana, as my grandpa from Queens calls it: The Land of the Fat As*es.

Not exactly scientific, but when it's obvious, it's obvious.

So I wouldn't put the greatest faith in these findings.

Parts of Washington (0.00 / 0)
Which part of Washington did you live in?

[ Parent ]
Bacon grease (0.00 / 0)
I can't speak to statistics on income levels or education, but I do know that chicken fried in bacon grease is yummy. 

Traditional Southern cooking will kill anybody, and often does, after a lifetime of extra belly and high cholesterol.

Beer and TV (0.00 / 0)
This is easily explained.  It's well established that Republicans drink more beer and watch more TV than Democrats do.  If you sit around drinking beer and watching TV all day, what happens?  You get fat. 

Iraq Moratorium Day

Lots more interesting ... (4.00 / 2)
... red vs. blue, conservative vs. liberal statistics at Conservative Truths.

Recent examples:

"There Are More People Living Below The Poverty Level During Conservative Presidencies"

"Conservative States Have Higher Rates Of Forcible Rape Than Liberal States"

"The Median Income Of Families Is Lower During Conservative Presidencies"

But my all-time favorite is: "The Rate Of Suicides Is Higher During Conservative Presidencies", which corroborates similar findings in Britain and Australia.

Carolyn Kay

Carolyn Kay

sadly funny (0.00 / 0)
I was thinking maybe a link between divorce and obesity since divorce rates are also higher in red states but more than likely it probably the poverty in the redder states leading consumers to purchase cheap high trans fat, caloric foodstuffs. Being from MI myself, it would be interesting to see the breakdown by congressional district and then by income level either by district or county.  I'd say the correlation would tie closer to income.  If there is an overlap with conservative politics it is likely linked to conservatives woeful treatment of the poor.

[ Parent ]
And I'm thinking ... (4.00 / 1)
... that the higher number of divorces in red states is related to the lower marriage age in those states (lots of shotgun weddings?).

Carolyn Kay

Carolyn Kay

[ Parent ]
well, I suspect so they got most of the guns (0.00 / 0)
they are probably lying around like old shoes :)

[ Parent ]
Correlations (0.00 / 0)
If you like examining correlations of this type you might want to visit Order from Randomness.

The author has an interactive interface which allows you to study the relationship between hundreds of different variables. Some of the correlations are surprising. Wisely he doesn't try to explain why these correlations exist, he leaves that to the reader.

Policies not Politics

Obesity is a lifestyle (0.00 / 0)
Obesity is not "caused" by one single factor. It is a multi-factorial condition that comprises contributions from genetics, behavior, and available nutrients. Recently, it has been claimed that obesity can be promoted by viral infection, as well. 

The presentation of such a complex condition in a diverse society such as the that in the US will be complicated by the fact that every "risk factor" will not have an equivalent influence on every single incidence of obesity.  There is a reason why the most statistically significant correlations to whatever factors are considered are found in the more homogeneous populations.  Native Americans, Northern European villagers, and other groups have been studied for years in regard to obesity and other metabolic conditions, partly because the relative homogeneity of the populations provides statictically relevant results. Because many of the correlations cited in this thread are to the general population, the significance is lower. 

If you want to correlate Republicanism with obesity, I'd suggest defining the 5 major social/economic/medical/eductional/regional factors that underlie each population, then see if the groups share these  risk factors.  Single variable correlations are near useless in understanding the totality the obesity problem - which may account the confusion in this thread.

[Technical digression]: Moreover, the discussion has been diverted by the concept that obesity is a disease and that diseases are caused by something that can be readily identified. 

Obesity is not a "disease" - it is a condition that has arisen in the human population because the evolutionary forces that shaped our biological mechanisms for handling the food we consume are no longer applicable to the modern world.  Basically, we evolved as creatures that ate whatever we could find, whenever we could get it. Lots of fruits, nuts, roots, and leaves - punctuated by meat and fat when it was available. Our bodies very efficiently store the excess food-energy we consume - as fat and other, more easily mobilized bio-fuels.  Fat is the most efficient long-term energy store and is utilized sparingly.  (I could get into a long lecture about how elegantly this system works at the biochemical level, but I'll spare ya'll the details).  This was great when we were hunting and gathering, but the sedentary life of an agricultural society set us on the path toward the modern world. 

Certainly, the precise chemical composition of the foods we eat has some influence.  Processed foods are rife with compounds we have not encountered during evolution and these  appear to have some deleterious effects in promoting and accentuating obesity.  Similarly, how much exercise one gets, and how strenuous that activity is have an influence. Clearly, factors correlating with how one choses to live their life - where and what you eat, how much you exercise, and how you present those choices to your children - may also correlate with factors influencing which MSP one supports in an election.

Both are, at the root, lifestyle choices.

[End Digression]

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

No (4.00 / 1)
It isn't a 'choice' for a lot of people to live in food desert areas where there aren't any decent grocery stores with fresh, affordable produce. It isn't a choice when people have time consuming work and family obligations, and at the same time only have access to public transportation, which means that they don't have time to shop far and wide. It isn't a choice that convenience stores and fast food chains are often the only nearby, affordable food sources for many people.

Further add the increasing, for decades now, availability of junk food in schools, along with the poor quality of most school lunches. You end up with a generation of children who've grown up with a choice between the unappetizing and the unhealthy, but mainly unhealthy, particularly when their families can't afford good quality bag lunches or to provide decent breakfasts.

The high correlation between obesity and poverty noted by several other commenters should have put this meme that it's all a matter of personal choice/responsibility to bed a long time ago. It's only the food companies who benefit from the myth that their distribution chains and business model aren't culpable for our growing ill health as a society.

[ Parent ]
I did not say it was a choice (0.00 / 0)
I said it was a lifestyle - our modern day lifestyle.  A lifestyle that you go on to describe in detail. I made no attempt to address the extent to which that lifestyle is imposed or adopted by choice. I framed my discussion by evolutionary mechanisms, which are not well correlated with "choice"  - which part of your evolutionary history did your choose?  None.  I may as well as ask why we chose to have a blue sky.

Nor, did I absolve the food, drug, healthcare, recreational industries from any responsibility. If I implied such, I want to correct that impression.  Given the chemical and evolutionary natural history of 21st century humans and the relatively voluminous metabolic research data available in the scientific literature, there are clear links between the processed foods promoted by the industries mentioned above and the promotion of obesity (heart disease and diabetes, too!). If you were to ask me whether I believe it is ethical for these industries to continue to profit from products known to harm human health, I'd say no.

But, there is some hope in this area, no?  I don't know about your town, but here in the Twin Cities, there has been a significant growth in the awareness of the health benefits of eating whole, organic, foods.  More importantly, there has also been increased access to locally produced foods - from meats, to cheeses, to herbs, vegetables, and fruits. These new initiatives are not all driven by the governments, either - and they span socioeconomic scales.  Fresh food in magnet schools - local produce in low-income urban neighborhoods - restaurants (even in the new Guthrie Theatre) that make a point of exclusive use of local products in their menus. 

And I'm not even going to get into the exercise end of the spectrum - but that's there too.

So, in the end, perhaps it IS about choice - or as you suggest, the lack of healthy choices.  But - it doesn't have to stay that way.

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

[ Parent ]
Graphs by region: percent fat vs. Bush's 2004 vote (0.00 / 0)
There is a good relationship between obesity and Bush's 2004 vote, although this relationship is different in different regions - the Mountain West being the most notably different.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usFree Image Hosting at
Click to enlarge.

Although states outside the West generally sit on the same regression line, there are additional, smaller regional differences as well.

The same correlation holds for feral hogs (0.00 / 0)
Quoting The New Yorker's Ian Frazier here:

The presence of feral hogs in a state is a strong indicator of its support for Bush.

Coincidence? You be the judge.

I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD.  


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