The Suburbs Are Fatter

Felix talks about the fact that urbanites are thinner than their suburban counterparts and he ventures some explanations for why this might be so. Matt DeBord becomes unhinged and slams Felix as an elitist who is ignorant of the athletic he-men who actually populate suburbia. It’s a real ranter’s rant:

Oy! Talk about an east-of-the-Hudson River, blinkered mindset. There are plenty of cities in the U.S.—and the rest of the world—where the urban concentration isn’t that dense, people own cars…and remain thin while eating both restaurant cuisine and keeping the pantry stocked, preparing delicious, unfattening meals at home. That’s right, they have restaurants! And they don’t eat their ice cream by the gallon while watching Survivor! Some of them even use their cars to transport their bikes to the (beach, mountains) to ride them for…miles and miles! Or they drive someplace rugged and scenic to take a hike. Or they take frequent walks while also owning a car!

I’ve tangled with DeBord before. He is very eager to throw out the elitist charge, and not particularly anxious to read and think about what folks have actually written.

But the bottom line is that there is a very strong correlation between living in sprawl and being obese. And while it isn’t necessarily the case that sprawl makes people fat, it is the case that obese people move to the burbs because it’s so easy to be fat there, what with the not having to walk and the many drive through restaurants and so on.

And it’s cool for me to say this because I grew up in the most suburban suburb ever, in the south, no less, which is like a double cootie shot against charges of elitism. Not that background should matter, of course, when one is making a factually accurate statement.

Update: Yes, yes, I misspelled “elitist.” Ironic, no? Happily, actual Manhattan elite Matt Yglesias long ago shattered the spelling barrier in blogging.


  1. jg says:

    err, you mean elitist?
    I must be one of them too… Plus I’m from Canada and we all think that anyone south of the border is fat anyways…

  2. Rob says:

    There is a great quote in Jeff Mapes’s book Predaling Revolution from a girl who lives in the Nerthlands (I believe). She has no qualms saying that her father is fat because he drives his car everywhere – even to the grocery store. You’ll rarely hear that around here. Who wouldn’t want to drive to a grocery story? How would you carry all the food that won’t make you fat?

  3. Heidi Cool says:

    It makes perfect sense to me that the suburbs would be fatter. When I was in college I was thin. My first 2 years I was on swim team, so I was working out a lot, but after a shoulder injury I had to drop that. Even so I remained thin. I didn’t worry much about what I ate, but I was walking around campus all day getting to and from classes and other activities. I was probably walking several miles a day just in the course of my general existence. (Rural campus with lots of land.)

    After I graduated, that much walking was no longer part of the regular routine. I needed to drive to get to work, stores etc. As time went by I gained weight.

    Yes, of course it is possible to eat properly and take walks for exercise, but it is different. When one just walks around to get from point A to point B as part of one’s normal day, one doesn’t think about it, one exercises by default.

    But if one commutes via car then one has to commit extra time to getting the exercise done. It’s no longer part of the normal routine. It should be done anyway, but it takes extra effort and time. So overall I think it is easier to get that exercise in if one is living in a walking environment.

  4. motorless says:

    It’s interesting that this discussion is taking place. This article was in Time recently:,8599,1914857-1,00.html

    According to several studies it’s not the riding for “miles and miles” that makes the difference as Matt DeBord suggests, but the many combined movements that one makes in a day, such as walking, climbing stairs, etc.

    Furthermore, it looks like overweight people choose suburbs over cities. So it appears to be a vicious circle. Fat people choose a less active lifestyle, that contributes to obesity…

  5. flippant says:

    A double-cootie shot, misspelling and a Matt Yglesias slam all in one post.


  6. Karl Smith says:

    I am skeptical of the urbanity makes you thin hypothesis. It would fit better if clincal trails showed weight loss from exercise but they don’t.

    I also think blaming fast food because of standard concepts of unhealthiness are probably not right. Fast food contains a lot of saturated fat and in the past trans-fat. As such it is bad for your heart.

    However, in terms of macro-nutrient profile it is strikingly close to the standard guidelines and I would be surprised if it is much worse than typical restaurant food. After all much of the restaurant tradition is French and French food actually has a pretty bad nutrient profile based on conventional guidelines.

    I am much more sympathetic to selection effect. Both because its hard to be fat in the city and because the city attracts high earners who are also more likely to be thin.

    I wonder more about the social effects of the city as well. More friends. More activities. There is some connection between mood and weight gain though it is not well understood. However, all of the effective weight loss drugs are mood drugs as well.

  7. David Sucher says:

    Well if fat/thin it is not a matter of geography, or demography or class/education then it’s basic morality. Right?

    It’s gotta stem from something. You can’t have it both ways unless you simply don’t ever visit and a WalMart _and_ a Patagonia and don’t know what is happening.

    Btw, if you read DeBord closely he has so many hedge words that he ends up saying nothing.

  8. Karl Smith says:

    David Sucher,

    I don’t get the point you are making. Are you saying there has to be some reason that some are fat and others are thin?

  9. OGT says:

    Actually, Felix did appear to have the causation exactly wrong according to the study you link to:

    (The study) tracks the data of nearly 6,000 people over a six-year study period. During this period 79% of the subjects changed addresses. These movers allowed the authors to identify the effect of sprawl on weight….

    The paper concludes that people who are more likely to be obese are more likely to move to sprawling neighbourhoods. The debate over obesity is ideologically charged and these results are likely to be controversial and (in some circles) unpopular. The findings suggest that the public-health battle against obesity is better fought on ground other than the urban-planner’s drawing board.

    jg- That’s what us Yankees think about Southerner’s

  10. reason says:

    clinical trials don’t show that excercise reduces weight? You amaze me? I’m absolutely certain that if I trained for a marathon I would lose weight. Absolutely certain. Something doesn’t fit here.

  11. tim says:

    I think he’s referring to this Time article which purports to find that exercise makes you hungrier, therefore you eat more when you’re working out regularly, therefore you don’t lose weight.

  12. David Sucher says:

    “I don’t get the point you are making. Are you saying there has to be some reason that some are fat and others are thin?”

    Unless fat/thin is totally random and the quantity one eats, or the type of food or the amount of exercise one takes have no impact on fat/thin, then yes I’d say that there must be a reason why some are fat and others are thin.

  13. monkeyrotica says:

    You’re forgot to mention that suburban residents are also uglier and they smell.

    If you think cities are full of slim people, you clearly haven’t spent much time in the grocery stores in less affluent parts of the city.

  14. Alex says:

    As if losing weight – as opposed to improving your health, fitness, appearance, whatever – was the only reason to exercise. As you know Bob, muscle weighs more than fat and bone with more calcium weighs more than bone with less, which is why BMI is a bad metric.

    If the underlying model was broken, not the metric, basic human physiology would have to be very different – we’d have to somehow store more energy out of our diet the more energy we used, which would imply that we wouldn’t be able to do anything very energetic without eating continuously.

    This is, by the way, a specific case of the general principle that anything that requires a new law of nature is probably wrong.

  15. Karl Smith says:

    clinical trials don’t show that excercise reduces weight? You amaze me? I’m absolutely certain that if I trained for a marathon I would lose weight. Absolutely certain. Something doesn’t fit here

    Well, first being certain about something doesn’t make it true. A lot of people were absolutely certain that if they sailed to the edge of the earth, they would fall off.

    Second, the question is whether or not training for a marathon would be a pure injection of exercise. Likely you would get up earlier. There seems to be some connection between waking hours and weight. Likely, you would eat differently. You would almost certainly eat more, and unless you simply scaled up all of your portion sizes, you would probably change the ratio of macro-nutrients.

    Likely, you would believe that you would loose weight. There is a placebo effect in weight loss. Giving someone a pill they think will make them loose weight, will induce some weight loss.

    Likely you would sweet more and loose some water weight and appear less bloated.

    Depending on your starting muscularity you might build some muscles causing a more lean appearance.

    Most importantly if you were fat and you started training you would likely quit unless some of these other factors induced enough weight loss to reduce stress on your joints.

    But you might wind up being the subject of this guy’s question. He asks, why are so many marathon runner’s fat?

  16. reason says:

    Joska Fischer?

  17. reason says:

    He then stopped running and put it all back on again.

  18. Phillip Huggan says:

    Bad (sub)urban planning. Simplest way to increase fitness and make friends (good for mental health) is to mandate all new residential land is built as a “fused grid”:

    Lucky enough to get a Cdn Geographic summer 2005 back issue deliniating the concept invented by Canada’s Freddy Mac (and it isn’t a derivative instrument): CMHC. Looks like a Pacman maze from air, but many workplaces and bizs in walking distance.

    Grids are inefficient because too much pavement and unsafe intersections/traffic.

    Loops and Cul-de-Sacs, the typical suburbs, easy to get lost and long walking routes.

    Better yet, no damn lobbies except for smush the toddler lobby. The real prize would be engineering a modular way to cost-effectively convert some grids or Cul-de-Sacs into Fused Grids.

  19. Karl Smith says:

    Andy Delbridge?

    His brain tumor was cured by prayer. He and his doctors are convinced. But the plural of anecdote is not data. I would not recommend payer as a basis for cancer policy.

  20. reason says:

    I wonder if you know just how much you have to run in order to prepare properly for a marathon. I suspect that the reason the tests didn’t show much is they didn’t allow enough for the non-linearity of effects.

  21. DM says:

    God bless, I love the ‘burbs, but a good old fashion eyeball test proves out that fewer fat people live in cities. I was in the best shape of my life when I lived on a hill in SF.