Revealed: why so many Americans are fat (it's not the food)
By James Langton
Association for the Study of Obesity
Nutrition and Physical Activity - Centres for Disease Control [CDC]
Georgia Institute of Technology
THE mystery as to why Americans have become the fattest people on the
planet has been uncovered by public health experts, who say that decades of
uncontrolled suburban sprawl conceived around the motor car have left them
unable to walk even if they wish to.
Such delicacies as the stuffed crust pizza and triple bacon cheeseburger have
played their part, but the main culprit for the ever-expanding American
waistline seems to be the way modern suburbs are built. Researchers for the
US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention are preparing to test the
theory with a series of experiments to find out how far Americans actually
walk. In Atlanta, Georgia, they plan to equip 800 people with satellite
tracking devices to follow their daily routine step by step.
The drift to the suburbs has been one of the most significant trends in
population movement in the last 50 years. It has been accompanied by a rise
in vehicle ownership, so that many new homes come with a three-car garage as
standard. A tour of the suburban streets surrounding any American city shows
why. In many areas, the pavement has been done away with entirely. Since the
high street has been increasingly replaced by the shopping mall, even the
simplest purchase now requires a drive of several miles.
According to Dr Tom Schmid, a director of the Centres' Division of Nutrition
and Physical Activity: "Our world has got a lot easier to live in. We sit in
cars, we don't walk to the store on the corner and we don't walk to the
park." Doctors and health experts have puzzled for some time as to just why
so many Americans are so fat. At least one in five is defined as obese - more
than 30 per cent above their ideal weight.
Yet over-eating does not seem to be the simple explanation. Most adults
consume only around 100 calories a day more than they did 20 years ago, while
the amount of fat in their diet has dropped from 42 per cent to 34 per cent.
The problem now seems to be a way of life so sedentary that it involves
little more than a few steps between the home, driveway and office. In many
areas it can be positively hazardous to walk.
Few suburbs now have sidewalks so the pedestrian is forced on to the road.
What is more, police and private security patrols view anyone moving around
on a suburban estate without a car as someone who has either run out of
petrol and in distress, or poor and up to no good. One mother of three, Linda
Koulakjian, complained to the Washington Post last week that when she decided
to take a walk to burn off a few pounds, several neighbours stopped their
cars and asked if she needed help. Mrs Koulakjian admitted: "Frankly I was
embarrassed. I didn't want to walk any more after that."
An investigation by the Georgia Institute of Technology into walking habits
in Seattle found a direct correlation between physical activity and the year
a house was built. Residents in streets built before 1947 walked or cycled at
least three times every two days. Those in more modern houses used cars
The Atlanta study, to begin in March, will look at 8,000 households in two
districts, one where the shops and houses are close together and the other in
an outer suburb. One in 10 of those taking part will wear a tracking device
so that researchers can monitor their activity. What worries organisations
such as the American Medical Association about America's bulging waistline is
that children seem to be among the worst affected. The number of severely
overweight children has doubled in the last 20 years.
One of the best ways for children to exercise, by walking to school, has all
but disappeared because over-protective parents fear that they will be
abducted by paedophiles or run over crossing the road. The reality is that
paedophiles murder only around 100 children each year in the United States.
By contrast, 1,772 children died and 316,000 were injured in car crashes in
1998, the latest year for which figures are available.
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