The factors behind the relative obesity of America's cities.

More than one in four Americans are obese, according to data from the Gallup-Healthways Well Being Index. But rates vary considerably across cities and metro areas. The table below lists the 10 metros with the highest and lowest levels of obesity, out of the 190 metros covered by the Gallup-Healthways data.

Charlotta Mellander and I examined the obesity of cities in a 2011 study in which we also looked at smoking across metros. Our research employed both correlation and multivariate analysis to shed light on the factors associated with obesity across metros. As usual I remind readers that correlation does not imply causation, though our multivariate analysis controls for a wide range of factors.

Basically, we found that obesity is not just a health problem, but strongly linked to the economic development and human capital structures of cities and regions. 

Education levels also play a role. Obesity is negatively associated with the share of adults that are college graduates (-.47).

The kind of work we do factors into the picture as well. Obesity is negatively associated with the share of workers doing knowledge, professional, and technical work and positively associated with the share of workers employed in blue-collar working-class jobs.

Larger metros have lower levels of obesity as well (the two are modestly correlated). This may be a function of less driving and  greater walking and biking to get around. In fact, obesity is closely related to the way we commute. It is strongly positively associated with metros where more people drive to work alone (.52) and negatively associated with the share of people who bike or walk to work (-.41).

Obesity is associated with other problematic health behaviors and lower levels of personal well-being. Higher levels of obesity are correlated with higher levels of smoking (.56) and lower levels of subjective well-being (-.45).

To get a firmer handle on all of this, we ran a series of multivariate regression analyses to examine the role of income, education, class, and commuting style on obesity while controlling for other factors. In a nutshell, our findings confirm that obesity across metros is related to income, education, and the share of commuters who drive to work.

Cities have begun to take on the challenge of obesity. Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City, put himself and his city on a diet. The city ultimately lost one million pounds, as Emily Badger reported for Cities last year:

Oklahoma City has found the political will to put in 400 miles of new sidewalks, a bike trail master plan and plans for a new 70-acre downtown park. The city is redefining a "great way to live" from congestion-free sprawl to denser and healthier communities where people don’t reach for the car keys every time they go around the corner.


"I can’t tell you if people in Oklahoma City are any thinner than they were. They might be, I don’t have any way of really knowing," Cornett says. And he argues those media lists probably don’t have any way of knowing, either. "But I do feel confident on the awareness side that people do understand the danger of obesity, and how as a city we need sidewalks and bike lanes and all of those things."

Top image: Jakub Cejpek /

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