Time for Michigan to drop the drumstick

Rob St. Mary was already traveling light when he moved to Colorado in March. He sold many of his belongings, including his car, packed his cats and a U-Haul, and set out from Detroit to a job at Aspen Public Radio.

Just a few months into his new life, he is even lighter, having shed nearly 25 pounds of Michigan fat.

He isn’t dieting or working out any more than he did in Michigan. But he’s found there’s a reason that Michigan is one of the nation’s fattest states and Colorado is the nation’s slimmest.

"It’s the lifestyle,” he said. “(Michigan) is so tied to the car culture, plus it’s gray all winter long. Here, it snows, but then the sun comes out again, and you go outside.”

St. Mary changed more than his address when he moved. He takes advantage of the admittedly unique amenities of Aspen, a wealthy town of 6,000 year-round residents that swells to 20,000 in winter and summer. He rides a bus to work and around town, or does most of his errands on foot. He has a membership in a bike-share network. Just that level of simple exercise integrated into the fabric of everyday life was enough to chip away the pounds.

But even in less-affluent parts of Colorado, a go-out-and-play mindset prevails. Cherie Talbert, a Michigan State graduate who moved to Denver from Grand Rapids eight years ago, said the city’s infrastructure, as well as its 300 days of sunshine a year, encourages outdoor activity.

“The housing is more expensive and you don’t have as much room indoors, but we have huge parks, rec centers, bike trails,” she said. “My husband rides everywhere.”

Why Michigan is obese – why any person or population is obese – isn’t a mystery. We consume far more calories than we burn with activity. But why Michigan is so fat, top-10 in the nation fat, is harder to unpack. Many factors contribute to obesity, including thorny ones like culture and poverty. And even in skinny Colorado, residents are getting fatter. The poor in Colorado, as well as Hispanic adults, have obesity levels at or near the national level, said Susan Motika, of the Prevention Services Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

And Coloradans who live away from its recreation-mad cities, particularly in the rural eastern parts of the state, have the same problem. Seven of the state’s counties track with the nation’s obesity average.

What’s more worrisome, Motika says, is the trend over time. Nearly one-third of Americans are not just overweight, but obese, defined as a body mass index of 30 or above.  In Colorado, the percentage more than doubled over 16 years, from 10.3 to 21.4 percent.

Motika and others can point to many factors leading to this growing national spare tire, including but not limited to sprawl (which puts people in cars for longer periods), the explosion in fast-food restaurants, a decline in home cooking and portion creep. And so the war on obesity takes place on many fronts.

A mitten strategy

In Michigan, Dawn Rodman runs the state’s “Health and Wellness 4x4 Plan,” a public awareness campaign intended to slim down the state through four active strategies – healthy diet, exercise, annual physicals and avoiding tobacco – while educating residents on four measures of health – body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol level and blood glucose. And, Rodman says, there is good news to report:

According to the 2012 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a telephone survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Michigan’s obesity rate fell slightly this year, from 31.3 percent of residents being reported obese last year to 31.1 percent obese this year. That was enough to change the state’s national ranking, from fifth fattest to 10th.

Rodman is aware this is hardly cause for celebration, especially when one considers that another 34.6 percent of Michigan residents are considered overweight, with BMIs between 25 and 29.9. That means two-thirds of state residents weigh more than they should. And again, there are many reasons.

“It’s the environments in which we live,” Rodman said. “Are there opportunities to get outside and feel safe to exercise? It’s ‘food deserts’ – if you don’t have a car, you need a grocery within walking or bus distance. It’s where people work. The emphasis (at work) is to do more with less.” If, say, you’re working so hard that even a 30-minute lunch hour stroll is frowned upon, that’s going to be reflected in the number on the scale, too.

State and local governments, health-care institutions and corporations intercede where they can. The federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Acts of 2010 is pushing food served in schools in a healthier direction.

Rodman said that SNAP-Ed, the educational arm of the federal food-stamp program, tries to spread more health-conscious cooking skills to recipients. The Double Up Food Bucks program allows Bridge card holders to get tokens for twice the amount debited, if spent on fruits and vegetables at Michigan farm markets.

But both women emphasize that the effort to slim down the nation takes place at a very personal level. For all the attention paid to policy changes, from banning extra-large sugary drinks to slimming school lunches, the battle is fought in private in homes, at dinner tables, in grocery stores. Motika said that while policy analysts consider ways to provide more access to sidewalks and bike paths, ultimately the decision to live a more healthy life “has to be voluntary.”

And if Michigan can’t import Colorado’s weather or environment, it can adopt some of its ideas, said St. Mary, the Michigan expat.

“Part of the culture (here) is to take a gym break (at work),” he said. “People say, ‘I’m going to the gym, and I’ll be back in 90 minutes.’ No one would ever do that at any job I worked in Michigan. Maybe it’s part of our shift-worker mentality.”

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Mon, 12/02/2013 - 12:59pm
People love to eat and junk food just seems to taste better than more healthy alternatives, as long as that is the case for many its just a hopeless battle. . Bag of cheetos or celery sticks...hmmm not a hard choice for a lot of people.
Mon, 12/02/2013 - 3:39pm
1. work on pricing healthy foods at or below the same price as the cheap fatty foods. 2. continue making cities and rural communities more bicycle and pedestrian friendly. Those things could help. In the end however, it comes down to the individual making choices.
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 9:00am
Why do people always think there is a govt solution? Let's trim some real fat and get rid of the state department worried about obesity!
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 9:58pm
Dave, It takes so much less effort then trying to truly findout the real causes and then to develop effective ways to address them. They don't even have to try to figure out what the right questions are to ask, just be vocal in support of a solution.
John Ford
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 12:57pm
What have you got against education! The "government " is only trying to educate people who don't know how to eat right. If you want to blame someone --blame the companies who make big profits from food that contains ten to twenty different chemicals instead of natural elements.
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 9:51am
It's time to start making sense out of the science surrounding obesity. Having spent nearly four years and countless hours covering this topic with physicians, public health and policy specialists, my position has pivoted - dramatically. For the majority of overweight or obese Americans, losing weight is a complex and little-understood challenge. Michigan is closer than other sister states in addressing the issue, which requires a comprehensive approach that combines diet, exercise, education, environmental and psychological support. We need to provide Michigan residents with actionable, engaging strategies and tools to develop their own unique pathway to better health, as well as spur community advocacy, awareness and first-hand involvement in creating more active and vibrant households, schools and neighborhoods.
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 9:57am
It's frustrating for healthy people because the price of healthcare is rising due in large part to the spike in obesity. Obesity is a health problem second only to cancer. That's saying something. I'm marginally hopeful that Obamacare will put healthcare back within my reach, but I'm not holding my breath. I can't relate to the apathy in the comments of ***. Cheetos don't taste better in Michigan than they do in Colorado. There is a cultural difference likely based in knowledge/education. Which brings me to Dave Maxwell. Government is concerned because obesity reduces worker productivity, increases the costs of doing business and ultimately makes America less competitive in a global marketplace. But if owners are ignorantly obese as well reform cannot occur. Secondly, this article doesn't address it, but government is concerned because the numbers show that there are not enough able bodied people to fill our military. War-minded people will argue that it comes down to an issue of national security.
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 10:45am
Let's start with the pricing issue. Salad at McD's $5.00 or McDouble $1.00 ea. But beyond that, go to the grocery store: a Loaf of White or Wheat bread $1.00 to $1.25 but Multi-grain bread $3.29. Fresh fruit and vegetable versus canned or frozen. When so many people in Michigan are either un-employed, under-employed or have taken pay cuts to keep their jobs are trying to feed a family, the choice of paying bills and feeding a family limits healthy options. There needs to be a way to make healthy foods more affordable, not using New York style of raising taxes on unhealthy foods.
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 3:43pm
It is not the "food " that is the problem . WHAT IS IN THE FOOD that is the problem . GMO , Hormones to make chicken grow from 2 pounds into ten pounds in six weeks..so it looks like . and weight more .....Anything in a box ..prepared food will make you Selve ready/couchpotatoe plus the Stress living under the new rules..low wages , no jobs , old poeple /WE are the Number 2 Country in Agriculture and we have our own Farmers and rancher, food gathers of the land ...we should be Number ONE in healths , WE have more SWEETWATER then any other state. it is the ..leader and there way of putting item (all our Duck in the WRONG ROW...Time will tell , we have plenty of sunshine it is just the "NEW" of another shooting that keeps michiganeders of the STREET.Walks. WE need better police present on our Streets!
John S.
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 11:19am
A disclaimer--I'm no dietician. But a fair guess is that diet's 80% of the problem. It's the carbohydrates from seed grains and the processed sugar that add the pounds. On the evolutionary time scale, neither of these have been around all that long. We're still adapted for the most part to the hunter-gatherer diet. For most obese people, it's the paleo diet or something similar that will shed the pounds and restore health. Obesity is a disease of civilization. It would be helpful if more physicians were aware of and learned about Darwinian medicine.
Nancy Derringer
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 1:42pm
John, Thanks for your thoughts. I've heard the argument for low-carb before. There's no denying it works; we've all known people who've lost tons of weight following Atkins, paleo and similar plans. (Keeping it off is another matter, but let's leave that aside for now.) But I've never heard a satisfying answer to two questions that always arise for me; maybe you'd like to try. First, how would you manage such a diet for people who have to live on public assistance or very tight food budgets? The cornerstone of paleo/low-carb diets is meat, which is generally the most expensive food on our plates. And second, if flour and sugar are so terrible, and so inextricably linked to obesity, why has this fact only asserted itself in the last 20 or so years? Look at any crowd photo taken in the 60s or 70s, when people were eating store-bought white bread and full-sugar sodas; you won't see nearly as many obese or overweight people as you do today. Check out the map on this page, the second one, low on the page. You may need to reload to watch the animation play out from the '80s through 2010, and watch obesity spread across the country like a stain. What has changed in the last 20 years that pushed the obesity rate so high?
John S.
Thu, 12/05/2013 - 5:28pm
Your questions are excellent ones and I don't have the answers. Research might help answer the question about growing obesity over the last 20 years. Perhaps people are just drinking more soda and in general eating more high glycemic foods. I recall in the 1950s a small bottle of Coca-cola was a weekly treat. Today, there are people who down several 2-litre bottles a day. Hunter-gatherers had varying diets, depending on the environment where they lived. Meat was a varying proportion of the diet. It doesn't have to be a large part. Eggs and nuts are good sources of protein. People of northern European ancestry are likely well-adapted to milk products and for them may be another good source of protein.The change in diet that works for me and on which I lose weight is cutting down sharply on breads, pasta, cereals, potatoes, using no sugar, drinking no soda, and getting carbs from salads and vegetables. Pragmatically, people should admit they don't know and just try different things out and see what works for them.
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 11:30am
As someone who spends a lot of time in the Rockies and West, I have long noticed the .... lack of bulk. I'd credit this to the fact that the area self selects for people (from accross the country) who love and actively participate in outdoor pursuits and always has. Further the area's employment is heavily based on tourism, services, construction and Ag, all fairly active occupations. And lastly there just seem to be a lot more young people there. How you're going to translate this to Michigan?? Good luck! Government and society can't cure every il.
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 3:26pm
"I can’t relate to the apathy in the comments of ***. Cheetos don’t taste better in Michigan than they do in Colorado. There is a cultural difference likely based in knowledge/education." That is possible, I think it is more likely related to a bad economy, when people don't feel good about themselves eating is one of the few pleasurable things to do, plus healthy food often costs more than junk food and a lot easier to get (McDonald's etc. along with party stores everywhere).
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 7:38pm
I moved in the opposite direction - from Colorado (metro Denver) to Michigan. I've actually had people kid me that I'm obviously not a MI native, because I am thin. The level of fatness here is unsettling to me; it seems quite normal here. I've emailed CO friends photos of deserted trailheads and state or regional park parking lots. On beautiful sunny days, on weekends....nobody is there. It is very weird. Definitely a different culture. That, and the popular regional food in Michigan appears to be "Coney" hot dogs, and fast food franchises.
Madame LaFarge
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 10:13pm
Loved the last paragraph: “'Part of the culture [in Denver] is to take a gym break (at work),' he said. 'People say, "I’m going to the gym, and I’ll be back in 90 minutes." No one would ever do that at any job I worked in Michigan. Maybe it’s part of our shift-worker mentality.' Or maybe it's because any worker that assumed such an attitude would be laid off by the time s/he returned. The last decade of stress and fear as jobs were lost and never returned have really taken a toll on personal health. Let's face it, the carefree biker who can afford the cost of healthy food and the time away from the job for exercise and recreation probably doesn't live in Michigan. But seriously, the obesity problem is complex. Michiganders come from ethnic traditions that are food-intensive and don't disparage bigger body types unlike hipper, younger people in Western states. Public transportation, which encourages walking, is unreliable or non-existent in many areas. Beach access is diminishing as the wealthy buy up lake frontage, and while we are awash in state land and recreation areas, it seems like they are all destinations, not close by. I'm guessing our population's median age factors in much older than Colorado's - our young people move away for jobs or more exciting cities. Public healthcare is harder to come by here. My kid got through four years of high school without having to take one single gym class, and had he wanted to play a sport, it was an additional cost to participate. Half the year you are bundled up under a heavy coat that "hides" pounds. Add to these the same food challenges Michiganders share with all Americans: over-sized restaurant portions; rising costs for healthier foods; GMOs and other ingredients of questionable nutritional value; a nearly universal increase in sedentary activities like gaming, web surfing, and office work at a desk instead of on the line. And then there is the rising backlash as obese people resist the fat-shamers and health naggers, and just give up trying diets that never work -- they simply buy larger clothes and avoid mirrors.
Wed, 12/04/2013 - 2:44pm
Madame, So much of what you say is true, the problem is complex and yet it is simple. Eating like most of the risky lifestyle choices we make are primarily sustained by habit, if we change our habits we change our health. The complex is all of the influences on those habits. You mention cultural infuences, they are strong and deep seeded on out youth. But they can be changed by new and supportive influences. You mention the access to recreation land such as state parks, I believe the situation provides a great opportunity for such recreational areas to be created in a metropolitain area. Consider trails and workout stations in Detroit and encouraging employers to develop businesses close to them. We here about how to draw businesses into Detroit, we hear about how we need to change the health consciousness of Detroit, we hear about how much open ground is in Detroit, I wonder why they aren't brought together creating a synergy of purpose and impact. But these kind of approaches don't seem to fit Ms. Derringer's purpose, it seems she would rather only listen to the 'experts' and the provided data rather then turn to the public and the people actually being successful and moving themselves from obese to overweight to normal for ideas. You offer many points that could proompt new ideas for imporving choices, I wish Bridge/Mr. Derringer would consider creating an incubator form for idea sharing and development that draws readers like us.
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 10:51pm
Yes!!! They should stop requiring/reimbursing schools for the crap food they feed our kids! Preschool age we aren't even allowed to send our own healthy food in! This is deplorable!!!
Sat, 12/07/2013 - 9:01am
Having lived in both Colo and Mich (but not being native to either) I've seen each more objectively, as an outsider. Coloradans don't eat appreciably smarter than Michiganders - the real difference is that significant frequent exercise is built into Colo culture and almost absent in Mich culture. In Colo, there's a cultural expectation that you will walk, run, bike, ski, hike, horse ride, or whatever, almost daily. It's a frequent topic of conversation in every setting. Also, Michiganders strongly tend to use motorized equipment for boating and backcountry access that would be human-powered in Colo (although boating is pretty limited there, as climbing is here). Although these activity levels and cultural expectations vary among income groups and other society groups, the difference between Colo and Mich seems to be true for all of them.
md baldwin
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 12:26am
Body Mass Index is a fraud! Using lumber as an example: A 6 foot 2x4 and a 6 foot 6 x 6 have the same BMI. The 6x6 has 4.5 times the mass, but the same BMI. Makes the index meaningless!
Olga Swarthout
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 9:02am
The weight issue is a complex problem . Food is a big part. Carb loaded junk food will spike weight on genetically susceptible folks. Add in the inactivity factor. The 60's was the beginning of suburban sprawl. The elimination of neighborhood sidewalks and the need for a car to go anywhere removed an element of natural physical activity-and it continues today. An affluent neighboring town just resurfaced a section of a main road that used to have gravel shoulders. The new road was widened and shoulders were removed. Bicyclists will now have to take their chances sharing a lane with 45+ mi/hr drivers. Compare this exercise unfriendly scenario with a city like Portland, OR where bike paths rule.
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 11:36pm
Part of this all too is the attitude about growing your own food. When you live in a Michigan city and try to grow your veg, you end up cited for noxious weeds or told you can't do that by zoning, there's a problem. When people try to sell their excess veg and are denied that because the city refuses to issue a business license (or shuts you down first and then won't let you have one) on the excuse that they just don't want people growing veg here, and it then takes years for you to fight it up through the courts under right to farm, we have issues. When our own governance is prohibiting us from growing our own food and making sure our neighbours can benefit from our surplus, we are not going to have a healthy state. Mindset, folks, is critical. Part of that mindset is that being self sufficient or self reliant- making your own recreation, making your own food, growing your own food, and serving others while teaching them to do the same.