Thursday, December 20, 2007

The New Obesity Map

Boy this study had legs.

Researchers at the University of Alberta did a study whereby they mapped Canadian obesity rates in relation with fast food restaurant density.

What they found was

"was actually a fairly strong relationship, a strong correlation between the two, that those cities that had higher obesity and overweight rates tended to have a higher density of at least the larger fast-food restaurant chains, so there were more restaurants per person in those cities".
The media loved it!
You Want Size with That?
- The Toronto Star

Fast food fuels fat cities; As restaurant tally rises, obesity rates follow, study suggests
- The Toronto Star (must have been a later edition)

Survey Links Restaurant Numbers, Fat
- The Vancouver Province

Fast Food Helps Put Hamilton on Obesity Map
- Hamilton Spectator

Where's the beefiest?; Closest to the highest density of fast-food outlets, one new study into obesity in Canada suggests.
- The London Free Press

Obesity rates lower in cities with fewer fast-food restaurants: Study
- The Calgary Herald

Weight may be linked to geography: study
- The Daily News (Halifax)

'Obesity map' plots fattest, greasiest cities
- The Saskatoon Star

More fast-food equals higher obesity: research
- The Edmonton Journal

More fast food choice makes for fatter cities, study confirms
- The National Post

Study finds greasy cities create chubbier residents
- Times Columnist (Victoria)

Greasier the city, fatter its residents; New research. 'Strong relationship' between flab and access to fast food
- The Gazette (Montreal)

Cities with more fast food are fatter; Edmontonians thinner than us
- The Calgary Herald

Greasier the city, the fatter its citizens; Study links greater obesity to more fast-food outlets
- The Windsor Star

Fast food cooks up portly people
- The Edmonton Sun

More fast food = fatter folk
- Edmonton Rush Hour

When it comes to obesity, location matters
- The Globe and Mail

You Are What You Eat
- The Daily News (Kamloops)
- The Daily Courier (Kelowna)
- The Welland Tribune
- The Brantford Expositor
- The Belleville Intelligencer (I didn't make up that name)
- The Toronto Sun
- The Sudbury Star
- The St. Catherine's Standard
- The Simcoe Reformer
- The Penticton Herald
- The North Bay Nugget
- Cornwall Standard Freeholder
- The Record (Kitchener, Cambridge and Waterloo)
- Winnipeg Free Press
- Prince George Citizen
- Times and Transcript (Moncton)
- Woodstock Sentinel Review

Best part of this whole business?

The quote by the study's author, Dr. Sean Cash, a fine young economist that I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with a few years ago at an obesity think tank. When asked what to make of the study this was his quote,
"I wouldn't say our study proves anything"
You see, some cities with high densities of fast food outlets had low rates of obesity and some cities with low densities of fast food outlets had high rates of obesity. Moreover there are literally dozens if not hundreds of other variables that may have influenced the results and even if the relationship was solid, it doesn't answer the question of chicken or egg.

Gee, you sure wouldn't guess that from the headlines would you? Well maybe if you lived in Vancouver as the Dr. Freedhoff award for journalistic integrity goes out to one lonely newspaper, The Vancouver Sun. Here's their headline:
"'Obesity map' shows strong link to fast-food access; But study doesn't prove anything, creator says"
Don't move yet.

[Hat tip to Rob our fitness director for noticing Sean's quote]

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  1. Anonymous8:59 am

    I am happy to see I am not the only one who thought something was "weird" about all those headlines, especially if you took the time to read the articles and the stories.

    One question. Was there not a study published (can remember when) that indicated that obesity rate in urban population was lower than in rural areas? The fact being rural folks were more dependent on their vehicles for all transportation needs?

    Bryan K.

  2. Hi Bryan,

    There have been likely hundreds of articles trying to tie geographic distribution with obesity.

    Unfortunately even those studies with "significant" results are unable to explain why as the number of confounding variables are so high.

    Transportation may indeed be a variable, but to ascribe the difference in obesity rates between urban and rural populations on the basis of a single variable simply isn't possible, just as it's not possible to tie obesity to the single variable of fast food restaurant density.

    Regards and thanks for reading,

  3. I used to give a public talk, or individual discussion re the myths in media related to dieting, food and food rules. Here is more of the same!! We have to keep our eyes open! Mahri

  4. Funny, I definitely thought of you when I saw the article in the paper yesterday. The Calgary Herald actually made a graphic showing the percent population that is obese next to the fast food outlets per 10,000 people in each city. When you look at it, you do see a bit of a correlation, but the relationship just isn't linear at all. For example, in Montreal, there's 1.44 fast food outlets per 10,000 people with 21.2% obesity and in Vancouver, there's 2.03 fast food outlets/10,000 but only 11.7% obesity. An interesting study, for sure, but fast food is definitely not the one thing that dictates obesity.

  5. conducted a study on 402 Americans regarding their health and weight class based on the U.S. Government standards. Results found that nearly one-third of Midwesterners indicated that they live an unhealthy lifestyle, and the majority (64%) are classified as overweight. The study also revealed that American women are significantly more overweight than American men.
    More in depth results can be seen at:

  6. I know this is an older posting, but I'm wondering what would happen if the study was repeated noting the proximity of fast food places to schools...??!