Obesity Study Finds Wide Racial Divide in the District

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Blacks in the District aren't the heaviest in the country, and whites who are D.C. residents aren't the skinniest, but their fat gap is among the biggest in the United States.

That disparity in obesity in the District was greater than any of the 164 jurisdictions examined by Vanderbilt University researchers looking at geographic variations in black and white populations. Their study, presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, delved into one aspect of the complex problem of obesity, which most health experts believe has reached epidemic proportions.

Among the top 10 areas showing the greatest black-white differences, Richmond weighed in at No. 7, in the company of such diverse locations as New York, Denver and Tallahassee. The fact that all the names on the list were cities or metropolitan areas was unexpected.

"Obesity prevalence goes down as you get into concentrated urban settings," David Schlundt, one of the study's authors, said yesterday. "But the importance of race as a predictor [of obesity] goes up."

The District was the clear leader of the group, with an 8 percent rate of obesity among whites and a 31 percent rate among blacks. "What we can say is that Washington is a poster child for disparities, and they're great here," Schlundt noted.

Figuring out why is another matter, he said. Certainly education, income and culture are factors, but so, too, might be the urban environment itself. "I'm trying to understand . . . what's protecting people in some of these places," he said.

Other jurisdictions in the region fared better. Looking at prevalence among African Americans, Charles County had the 10th-lowest rate, at 26 percent. In Montgomery County, 13 percent of whites and 22 percent of blacks were considered obese, among the healthiest rates for each group.

The Vanderbilt researchers analyzed data from 2001 through 2005 gathered by states and the District for a national health behavior survey. They included information from more than 367,000 people. But the study, they noted, is not a definitive or comprehensive look at obesity in the United States.

"It's more of a 'proof of concept' " showing the differences between rural and urban, North and South, said Schlundt, an associate psychology professor at the Nashville university.

The results showed no huge surprises. Americans who live in the rural South weigh the most regardless of race. In St. Mary Parish, La., nearly one in three whites is obese. In Halifax County, N.C., almost one in two blacks fits that designation.

There are exceptions to the girth by geography, however. Whites in the counties anchored by Detroit and Gary, Ind., have at least 26 percent obesity rates. And blacks in Memphis and its surrounding county and in Delaware County, Pa., outside of Philadelphia, have obesity rates of 43 percent or higher.

Schlundt and his colleagues hope the study will stimulate thinking, "to get people to look more at how place matters" to the issue of obesity. "And ultimately," he added, "to get humans to look at what can be done to make our cities, our towns, our rural areas healthier."

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