July 9, 2013

Why Oklahomans Stuff Themselves

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Q: Why do Oklahomans eat so poorly and exercise little?

A: The expanding size of Oklahomans is a complex problem, stemming from a variety of factors.

Two of the main reasons the state has the sixth highest percentage of obese adults are poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles.

A healthful diet with fruits and vegetables and regular physical activity are linked to a decreased risk of many chronic diseases.

As to why Oklahomans’ habits are worse than those in most other states, John Friedl, of the Oklahoma State Department of Health, points to the following

* Oklahoma has lower income and education levels, which affect what people can afford to buy and how they eat.

* Cities and towns here aren’t built to encourage physical activity. Many neighborhoods have no sidewalks, for example.

Oklahoma ranked 40th worst in the nation in meeting physical-activity recommendations in 2010, with nearly 30 percent of Oklahomans reporting they had not participated in any physical activities in the previous month, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

* Tradition and culture tend to promote eating unhealthful meals, such as fried food.

Oklahomans consume less fruits and vegetables than the nation as a whole.

About half of Oklahomans reported consuming fruits and vegetables less than once daily, according to a 2011 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That placed the state second worst among all states and the District of Columbia.

Another factor is that access to stores with healthful food is poor in many areas. Oklahoma ranks 46th in percent of census tracts with at least one health-food retailer, including supermarkets, within half a mile of a tract’s boundaries. To improve access, the CDC suggests expanding the number of supermarkets. Other options for groceries, like convenience stores, are often less consistent in the quantity, quality and variety of produce they offer.

“Obesity is never as simple as we want it to be,” said Friedl, physical activity and nutrition manager for the agency’s Center for the Advancement of Wellness. The center uses education to help address Oklahoma’s obesity problems. It works with schools and employers to develop environments where choosing healthful practices is easier.

One culprit often cited in obesity is eating too much fast food. According to Obesity Action Coalition, a Florida-based nonprofit, the number of fast-food businesses in the nation has doubled since 1970. The ubiquity of fast food in Oklahoma would seem to suggest it is a big driver of obesity rates.

On the other hand, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that in 2008 Oklahoma had about as many fast-food restaurants per capita as most other states.  USDA data shows West Texas has greater clusters of counties with high rates of fast-food restaurants. The county in Oklahoma with the highest rate of fast-food outlets was Pottawatomie County, with 90 restaurants, or 1.29 fast-food restaurants per 1,000 people.

Nevertheless, Friedl said Oklahomans probably are eating more fast food than people in other areas of the nation. Low-income residents, of which Oklahoma has many, tend to rely on fast food because of its convenience and price, he said.