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Who, me?

  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 
almost exclusively.

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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