Argument that obesity and McMansions are linked

One “muckraker” tries to suggest that bigger houses – such as McMansions – make it easier for people to be obese:

No, the truth is that like cars, McMansion houses, food portions and soft drink sizes, Americans are getting bigger every day–and because it is happening everywhere, few notice. Worse, the harder we try to lose poundage with low calorie foods, fitness centers and personal trainers, the bigger we are becoming. Even people in non-industrialized countries are packing on the pounds as Big Food peddles it high calorie, addictive processed food in “new markets.”

A correlation without causation argument. And you do not have to go McMansions to make the same claim: the average size of new homes has increased from roughly 1,000 square feet to 2,500 square over sixty years. But, how might we really show that having other bigger items in our lives leads to having other bigger items in our lives? Would the reverse also be true: that if we had increasingly smaller items in our lives, we would desire smallness over all? If these are all linked, perhaps we could tie this to the big American frontier or the large American ideals at the founding of the country.

Perhaps there are other arguments to be made here. Do McMansions offer more space for people to spread out? Or, could heavier people be more likely to purchase McMansions (and is this related more to their stage in life)?

Avoiding McMansion sized furniture

With new American homes increasing in size over time, it may be hard to find smaller new furniture:

I need help finding a sofa/sleeper that is not “McMansion sized”…

Have added a TV room on my house & would like to put a sofa/sleeper there so it can be used as overflow guest bedroom space. The stores all seem to sell HUGE sofas. Where do I find a (hopefully full size) sofa/sleeper that will not become “The Elephant In The Room”?

In addition to the larger new homes in the United States, might the larger furniture also be due to the growing size of Americans and the increase in obesity rates?

There must be some room in the market for smaller furniture, particularly if tiny houses or micro apartments are gaining in popularity. I know Macy’s has a small furniture line because we purchased a  bed in this line a few years ago – though the furniture isn’t really small but rather simply isn’t oversized. Here is how Macy’s describes this line:

If you’re desperate for more room around your bed, check out small spaces furniture for bedrooms. The Tahoe set has a headboard that’s full of storage space, or opt for a Hawthorne bed with matching leather storage at the foot of the bed. There’s every style from luxury leather to contemporary wooden and padded beds, ready to be dressed up with a striking duvet set.

Transform your space with a great selection of small spaces furniture at Macy’s.

If Americans must fill their larger spaces, they can go with larger furniture or more furniture. Either could fulfill the consumerist ethos…

“The Suburbs Made [Americans] Fat”

A new study suggests the design of streets in suburbia contributed to heavier residents and other adverse health outcomes:

In prior research, Marshall told me, they found that in the most extreme cases “older, denser, connected cities were killing three times fewer people than sparser, tree-like cities on an annual basis.” Of course, people walk and bike more in dense cities, but the research on actual ties to health outcomes is scant. So Garrick and Marshall took on and have just completed a large study of how street networks might influence our health.

They looked at the three fundamental measures of street networks—density, connectivity, and configuration—in 24 California cities, and compared them with various maladies. In the current Journal of Transport and Health, Garrick and Marshall report that cities with more compact street networks—specifically, increased intersection density—have lower levels of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. The more intersections, the healthier the humans…

Garrick and Marshall have also previously found that people who live in more sparse, tree-like communities spend about 18 percent more time driving than do people who live in dense grids. And they die more readily—despite old research that implied otherwise. Studies from the 1950s looked at safety in cul-de-sacs and found, as Marshall put it, “You’ll have fewer crashes in the cul-de-sacs. Sure, you’re safer if you never leave the cul-de-sac. If you take into account the entire city, your city might be killing more people.”…

They also found that wide streets with many lanes are associated with high rates of obesity and diabetes. That’s most likely indicative of, as Garrick and Marshall put it, “an inferior pedestrian environment.” Similarly, so-called “big box” stores in a neighborhood indicate poor walkability and are associated with 24.9 percent higher rates of diabetes and 13.7 percent higher rates of obesity.

Dense cities promote walking and biking, so the push for healthier cities fits with the vogue push for active lifestyles—as opposed to gym routines smattered across an indolent existence. Physical activity is not just concerted exercise time and deliberate recreation. It’s about ways of life. For some people, that’s best accomplished by making things inevitably more difficult on themselves in everyday life.

This seems to make some intuitive sense though there are lots of factors likely involved. I’m thinking of Putnam’s Bowling Alone which highlighted a whole range of factors that contributed to decreased civic engagement including sprawl and the rise of television.

But, if such research holds up – and even if it takes some time to confirm things and reach a consensus – such findings could lead to a new/forgotten dimension of selling places and new developments. Part of the appeal of emerging suburbs in the mid-1800s was getting away from the dirty city, a place that was increasingly seen as physically and morally corrupt. Developers sold the suburbs as getting back to cleaner settings that were closer to nature. This research would flip this idea: cities and more urban places promote more movement and better overall health. I imagine anti-sprawl advocates like the New Urbanists would want to jump all over this and add it to their lists of reasons why American sprawl should be halted.

Calling local McMansion restrictions a “McMansion diet”

Plenty of American communities have changed their zoning guidelines to limit the size of new McMansions, particularly teardowns in older neighborhoods. But, I’ve never seen this phrase before:

McMansion Diet? Continuation of Public Hearing to amend local law Chapter 197, Zoning, of the Rye City Code, Section §197-1, “Definitions and Usage”, to amend the definition of “STORY, HALF”, and Section §197-43.2, Subsection B, “Attics” to amend the Calculation of Attics in Gross Floor Area.

At its most basic level, the term implies the slimming down of McMansions. In teardown situations, a new home might not be that big compared to the average new home size in the United States of 2,500 square feet. But, if some of the neighborhood homes are 1,200 square feet and the new home is 2,300 square feet or the older and smaller homes are 1950s ranches and the new home is a Spanish with Tudor elements two story structure, the difference is more striking. The diet, which here looks like it relates to how attics should count toward square footage, will lead to smaller homes.

But, such a term also implies that McMansions need diets, that they are obese, that they may be the result of gluttony. These judgments are more involved with teardowns though the implication for McMansion in new sprawling neighborhoods is that they are unnecessarily large as well. And, some McMansion critics would argue, this diet should really be applied to an entire American consumption mindset that ranges from houses to fast food portions to SUVs.

I’ll be on the lookout for more links between McMansions and food diets and how this connection is presented.

Philadelphia fighting food deserts through fresh fruits and vegetables at corner stores

Philadelphia is launching a new initiative to fight food deserts through existing corner stores:

The $900,000 investment in better health depends on apples and oranges, chips and candy, $1,200 fridges and green plastic baskets. The results could steer the course of American food policy.

Philadelphia is trying to turn corner stores into greengrocers. For a small shop, it’s a risky business proposition. Vegetables have a limited shelf life, so a store owner must know how much will sell quickly — or watch profits rot away. He also lacks the buying power of large supermarkets and is often unable to meet the minimum orders required by the cheaper wholesalers that grocery stores use.

With shelf space at a premium, shop owners must pick and choose the products they think will sell best. Chips and candy and soda are a sure bet. Eggplant? It’s hard to know…

The city has recruited 632 corner stores — of 2,500 overall — to its Get Healthy Philly initiative. Of those, 122 have gotten more intensive support, been supplied with new fridges to store produce and connected with wholesalers from whom they can buy at lower prices. It is also working with schools to improve nutrition and helping neighborhoods launch farmers markets, a multifaceted approach officials hope will improve public health.

As the article suggests, there is a lot riding on this project. It will be interesting to see if this could (1) substantively help improve health and (2) be profitable.

The advantage here seems to be that the stores are already established in neighborhoods and probably already have an established clientele. This program then puts healthier food in front of people who may already be visiting these stores. Working with existing infrastructure sounds like it would be more effective as well as cheaper in the long run.

Participating in culturally elite activities related to lower BMI?

A new sociological study suggests there is a relationship between participating in certain cultural activities and having a lower BMI:

The study uses survey data from 17 nations, most of which are in Europe. In each country, a representative sample of the population was asked not only about height and weight, but also about time spent in a variety of activities. These included reading, going to cultural events, socializing with family and friends, attending sporting events, watching TV, going shopping, and exercising.A scale that measures interest in ideas, art, and knowledge—by surveying the amount of time spent reading, attending cultural events, going to movies, and using the Internet—is associated as strongly as exercise with a lower body-mass index, or BMI (a measure of weight relative to height). In other words, reading and exercise appear similarly beneficial in terms of BMI.

In contrast, people participating in other activities such as watching TV, socializing, playing cards, attending sporting events, and shopping have higher average BMI. Although time spent reading and time spent watching TV both expend few calories, one is associated with lower weight, and the other with higher weight…

So why might reading and related cultural activities be associated with thinness? The social meaning of the activity rather than the activity itself must be important for weight control. Leisure-time activities involve more than the calories burned; they also reflect differences across social groups in motives and means for good health.

These sound like interesting findings but I wonder if this is a classic example of “correlation does not imply causation.” Since these cultural activities might be related to social class, how do these findings line up with current statistics about weight (and health) by social class?

Sociological study says junk food sales in middle schools don’t lead to weight gain

A new study in the Sociology of Education provides some insights into the current debate over whether public schools should be selling junk food to students:

The authors found that 59.2 percent of fifth graders and 86.3 percent of eighth graders in their study attended schools that sold junk food. But, while there was a significant increase in the percentage of students who attended schools that sold junk food between fifth and eighth grades, there was no rise in the percentage of students who were overweight or obese. In fact, despite the increased availability of junk food, the percentage of students who were overweight or obese actually decreased from fifth grade to eighth grade, from 39.1 percent to 35.4 percent.

“There has been a great deal of focus in the media on how schools make a lot of money from the sale of junk food to students, and on how schools have the ability to help reduce childhood obesity,” Van Hook said. “In that light, we expected to find a definitive connection between the sale of junk food in middle schools and weight gain among children between fifth and eighth grades. But, our study suggests that—when it comes to weight issues—we need to be looking far beyond schools and, more specifically, junk food sales in schools, to make a difference.”

According to Van Hook, policies that aim to reduce childhood obesity and prevent unhealthy weight gain need to concentrate more on the home and family environments as well as the broader environments outside of school.

“Schools only represent a small portion of children’s food environment,” Van Hook said. “They can get food at home, they can get food in their neighborhoods, and they can go across the street from the school to buy food. Additionally, kids are actually very busy at school. When they’re not in class, they have to get from one class to another and they have certain fixed times when they can eat. So, there really isn’t a lot of opportunity for children to eat while they’re in school, or at least eat endlessly, compared to when they’re at home. As a result, whether or not junk food is available to them at school may not have much bearing on how much junk food they eat.”

This study has a big sample of nearly 20,000 students and the findings were so counterintuitive that the authors waited two years to publish the results.

While this study suggests schools don’t contribute to weight gain, it doesn’t necessarily mean that schools should suddenly revert to selling all kinds of junk. At first glance, this could be the sort of study that people worried about the “nanny state” could jump on. For example, see the response of the Center for Consumer Freedom: “Maybe it’s time for the “food police” to educate themselves. All the attempts to limit choices apparently won’t do the students any good.” At the same time, schools can be part of a larger package of social forces pushing for better eating and exercise but they aren’t likely to solve the problems by themselves or by operating in simplistic ways.

I wonder if this points to a bigger issue: Americans expect that schools will be able to even a lot of social ills. In this case, being obese and overweight is a complex issue that schools themselves can’t overcome. As the authors note, there are a lot of other factors at play and by the time students reach middle school, they have already been shaped in significant ways. While education is one of the best ways to promote upward mobility and the opportunity to compete in a rapidly-changing world economy, it is not a silver bullet for all problems. Of course, public policy is limited in what it can feasibly or popularly change and politicians and advocates only have so many levers they can move.

Another thing to note: I wonder how some might see an admission from one of the authors. One author said, “We were really surprised by that result and, in fact, we held back from publishing our study for roughly two years because we kept looking for a connection that just wasn’t there.” Some might be suspicious and wonder if there is an ethical issue: did the authors data mine looking for other connections? Were the authors afraid of how some might respond to their findings? At the same time, scientists can also be surprised by their findings and I would guess they were simply being thorough before exposing their work to the public.

“Anti-obesity housing”

The design of housing units is rarely meant to just be functional. But here is design that I have not heard about before: a new “Bronx co-op apartment building” that is meant to reduce levels of obesity:

The building, called the Melody, has a backyard with brightly colored exercise equipment for adults, and climbing equipment for children. It also has both indoor and outdoor fitness centers.

City officials say it’s the first in New York to be built with design elements aimed at countering obesity.

Two flights of stairs feature silhouettes of dancing women and jazz playing through speakers and motivational signs posted throughout the building tout the benefits of exercise.

A sign posted between the elevator and stairs, for example, notes that stairs are a healthy choice.

This description doesn’t sound like much has changed: couldn’t a lot of housing units be enhanced with playground/exercise equipment and signs/images that promote exercise?

The New York Times has more on why this building has the specific design elements that it does:

Near him hung a sign, between the building’s sole elevator and a staircase door, reading, “A person’s health can be judged by which they take two of at a time, pills or stairs.”

In 2010, the city released a 135-page guide called Active Design Guidelines, on the construction of buildings that would encourage exercise and mobility; it was compiled by city agencies in collaboration with health experts and architects. City officials said that while the Melody was the first to incorporate its suggestions, other projects were being developed.

Builders do not receive tax credits or compensation for following the rules in the guide, but doing so can earn them points in a rating system administered by the United States Green Building Council called LEED, for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

The city’s guidelines are more detailed and specific than LEED rules, which reward builders who, for example, use less toxic paints or locate their buildings near subway stops. The city’s guide encourages windows in gyms, bicycle storage areas and stairways that are bright, centrally located and attractive.

This is interesting. Of course, we will have to wait and see whether these design elements actually do increase levels of exercise and activity and decrease obesity levels.

When I think about other designs that promote exercise, New Urbanism springs to mind though I’m not sure I have seen them use exercise as a selling point. Since their developments are intended to be walkable or bike-friendly, this pitch could be made but what they often highlight is the community that is fostered by denser space and the environment-friendly design.

At some point, I may just have to dig into the “Active Design Guidelines” although you have to register online to download a copy or purchase a copy.

Obesity as “social contagion”

Findings in recent years that certain medical conditions, such as obesity, are strongly influenced by social networks have seemed to shake up thinking about how such conditions spread. A new model that explores obesity as a “social contagion” suggests obesity will eventually “spread” to at least 42% of the US population:

The social contagion hypothesis garnered widespread attention in 2007 when researchers from UC San Diego, documented that obesity can spread through a social network — just like viruses spread — because people “infect” each other with their perceptions of weight. That study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and subsequent research has confirmed the validity of the social contagion theory.

In a paper published Thursday in the journal PLoS Computational Biology, Harvard scientists applied a mathematical model of social contagion to 40 years of data from the Framingham Heart Study, a study that has followed more than 5,000 adult residents of Framingham, Mass., since 1948 to assess their heart health. Among the participants of that study, obesity increased from 14% in the 1970s to 30% in 2000 and continues to increase. Based on that data, the rapid upswing in obesity rates is due largely to social-network influence, said the authors of the new study. But, they noted, any subsequent rise in obesity rates will be slower than it has in the past. It may take another 40 years to reach that 42% obesity mark.

Interesting findings and I bet it is a complicated (but interesting) method by which such models are constructed.

If similar models were applied to other conditions or diseases, what are the results? In addition to obesity, what conditions are strongly influenced by social networks? Additionally, how can social networks be changed or altered so that an issue like obesity is combated?

“The Dieter’s Paradox”: Not seeing calories, even when they are right in front of us

A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology finds that healthy food, like fruits and vegetables, has a “halo effect” so powerful that consumers don’t even think they have calories:

[A]nother weight-loss conundrum: if you show people a plate of unhealthy food – say, a burger and fries – and then add some steamed broccoli to the very same plate, most people will say the second plate has fewer calories, even though it demonstrably has more calories on it. The author of the new paper, Alexander Chernev of Northwestern University, calls this “The Dieter’s Paradox.”

This study adds to a body of research that suggests we have difficulty estimating how much food and calories are really in front of us. These findings also remind me of Michael Pollan’s argument that focusing on nutrition, so in this case, seeing the vegetables or healthier food and thinking of how “nutritious” it is, is the wrong way to go about eating.