Obesity and Life Styles: Is it the Hamburger or your House?

Report Public Health

Obesity and Life Styles: Is it the Hamburger or your House?

September 30, 2003 3 min read
Ronald Utt
Visiting Fellow in Welfare Policy
Ronald Utt is the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow for...

In a sustained effort to undermine America's preference for suburban living and promote land use regulations that force families into higher density housing, anti-suburban activists have attempted to link the suburbs with whatever social or health concerns are in the news. 


Several years ago writer Neal Peirce blamed the Columbine murders on sprawl, while others have attempted to link sprawl to the rising incidence of asthma, teen alienation, serial killers, air pollution, high taxes, and, more recently, obesity.


Unlike the other unsupportable allegations, the obesity link has sustained a longer shelf life than the others, and recent reports have received widespread media attention. On October 2, 2003, several of these anti-sprawl advocates will attempt to make their case to Congress in a panel discussion in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.


As the articles below demonstrate, the advocate's case is a very weak one and receives little support from the evidence. But exaggeration and misrepresentation might be the least of their failings. 


There is no question that the apparent rise in obesity poses serious health threats, but to claim that the cause is land use patterns, as opposed to… oh say… poor diet, does a grotesque disservice to those at risk of obesity and its related health problems. 


By distracting those who need to lose weight for health reasons away from meaningful solutions - a better diet, more exercise - to inconsequential influences that have more to do with advancing questionable social agendas, these misrepresentations will ultimately undermine the nation's health.

  1. Sprawl and Obesity: A Flawed Connection by Wendell Cox and Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D.

    A new report from Smart Growth America and the Surface Transportation Policy Project, Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl, links growing obesity concerns with sprawl. The report's findings, however, fall short of supporting this conclusion.

    Instead, this is another attempt by the report's sponsors to spin research showing only trivial weight differences between city and suburban residents into a national crisis requiring land use restrictions.
  2. The Myth of the Fat Suburbanites by Randal O'Toole, Thoreau Institute

    Despite claims by anti-sprawl, anti-auto activists, the nation's recent "obesity epidemic" has nothing to do with the suburbs. It is not even certain that there is such an epidemic, since the only evidence for it is unverified telephone surveys whose results differ greatly from actual measurements of American weights.

    But given that some Americans are overweight, the available evidence indicates that obesity is found more in the supposedly walkable cities than in the supposedly auto-dependent suburbs. For example, Hispanics and African-Americans, who tend to be concentrated in the cities, are much more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites, who tend to live in the suburbs. This suggests that obesity is associated more with low-income levels than with geography.

    Studies also indicate that the amount of exercise Americans get has not changed in decades. If obesity is increasing, then, it is due to changes in diet, not to changes in physical activity resulting from too much driving or pedestrian-unfriendly environments.

Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., is Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Ronald Utt

Visiting Fellow in Welfare Policy