Changing Southern culture for healthier living

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

For many, thoughts of Mississippi evoke images that are dark and prejudicial. Aside from that, critics have argued for years that Mississippi lags behind every other state when it comes to progress – economic or otherwise.

But in some areas – none too glowing – Mississippi ranks number one, particularly when it comes to domestic violence cases, teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. And for the fifth year in a row, Mississippi has tipped the scales as the most obese state in the U.S.

A recent report by the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) noted that Mississippi had the highest rate of adult obesity at 32.5 percent. Colorado came in last at 18.9 percent. Those rankings are based on data collected from additional agencies including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The TFAH and RWJF have committed themselves to making disease prevention a national priority and they specialize in public awareness. Both organizations hold state public health systems accountable for their role in keeping their individual communities equally aware of disease prevention and healthier lifestyle options.

Primarily a rural state with 82 counties, Mississippi has a total population of 2.9 million people. Of that, 67 percent are white and 27 percent are African American. State officials agree that lifestyle, tradition, culture, poverty and convenience all contribute to Mississippi’s high obesity ranking.

“Our eating habits are horrible,” said state epidemiologist, Dr. Mary Currier. “Everybody here eats foods high in fat and fried foods. I’ve had friends to visit here who are vegetarians and even the vegetables are prepared with lard.”

Dr. Currier, who is also the director for the Mississippi State Department of Health, said that historically southern states are known for their poor eating habits. And statistically, of the top ten ranking states for obesity, southern states held the first eight spots, Michigan ranked ninth and Arkansas and Ohio tied in tenth place.

Obesity, which also leads to diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, strokes and other health problems, can also hinder a community economically with employees missing workdays because of obesity related illnesses and future industries being discouraged from relocating to an area that can’t ensure a healthy and stable workforce.

Known as the “silent killer,” high blood pressure or hypertension stems from obesity and was listed as the primary or contributing cause of death for 319,000 Americans in 2005.

In 2006, there were 44,879 million physician office visits for hypertension and it is estimated that the direct and indirect costs of high blood pressure will be $73.4 billion in 2009.

Recent studies from the CDC report two findings: That southern states have more cases of high blood pressure than other states, and that African Americans are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, with 42 percent of black men and 44 percent of black women being affected by the disease.

Culturally, that is correct. Most black families don’t make nutrition a priority. Well-meaning parents, or single mothers too exhausted from work, serve up fast foods or high sodium foods to their children, as a substitute for a well-prepared and nutritious meal. Fast food restaurants abound within the black community and often a lack of funds prevents many households from buying fresh fruits and vegetables which usually cost more than salty snack treats.

Additionally, upbringing is a factor. With the newer generation growing up on sandwiches, their children have no choice but to continue the trend preferring something from McDonald’s rather than a good home-cooked meal.

“We do what’s easy rather than what’s best for us,” said Dr. Currier. “We park as close as we can to Wal-Mart,” she said. “We eat fast food because it’s easy to drive through and it’s easier to pick up a Twinkie than it is an apple because they taste so wonderful. We do what’s easy and we eat what’s available.”

When it comes to childhood obesity, Mississippi again ranks number one with 44.4 percent of children, ages 10 to 17, being overweight.

Because Mississippi and other southern states don’t offer gym or physical education courses in school, many states have initiated other programs to promote sports and/or other physical type activities.

School dietary options are also changing across the nation with students being given carrot sticks instead of French fries. Vending and snack machines now offer 100 percent fruit juices, water, milk and other healthy snack alternatives. And fried foods in the cafeteria have been replaced by items that are baked or broiled.

In an effort to combat obesity worldwide, communities are introducing in and outdoor farmer’s markets with fresh fruits and vegetables. Extension services and other state funded programs offer cooking classes that use fresh food alternatives. Parents are being encouraged to invite their kids into the kitchen to prepare healthy meals together as a family and nutritionists are sponsoring various weight loss challenges.

In 2006, the governor of Mississippi launched a statewide campaign, “Let’s Go Walking Mississippi,” encouraging everyone, regardless of age, to get out and walk and exercise. All across the state, grant funds have allowed some municipalities to install walking trails and recreational parks within their community.

Dr. Currier agreed that a major concern is that many smaller towns within the state don’t receive grants or have the tax base to fix roads, water or sewer lines, much less finance walking trails and tennis and basketball courts. Therefore, citizens are less apt to exercise. But what they can do is start small. Work on one healthy meal a day and be consistent. Reach for the apple instead of the Twinkie, because small steps are better than none at all.