Are obesity rates higher for urban or rural residents?

A new study finds a surprising gap in urban and rural obesity rates.

Where you live might play a significant factor in the likelihood that you are, or will become obese.

A new study published in the Journal of Rural Health found that 40 percent of adults living in rural areas are obese compared with 33 percent of adults living in urban areas.

Researchers at the University of Kansas and the University of Florida used measured height and weight data from the National Center for Health Statistics, instead of relying on self-reported data. Researchers looked at a number of factors that can impact obesity (diet, physical activity, age, race, gender and education) and found that even when these factors are held constant, rural populations are more likely to be obese.

“I was surprised by the magnitude of the rural-urban difference – it was larger than expected and much larger than previously estimated,” said Michael Perri a professor at the University of Florida, and one of the study's authors, in a statement.

While it would be easy to conclude that people in urban areas are less obese because they have more opportunities for walking and biking, an urban area could just as easily refer to a car-dependent suburb as a dense, walkable downtown. A more detailed look at obesity based on something like Walk Score would be needed to make that case.

But the researchers did conclude that obesity is higher in rural areas because of two main factors: cultural diet and physical isolation. Diets in rural areas were found to consist, typically, of foods higher in fat. Also, access to health care is more challenging because of physical isolation.

Interestingly, the gap between urban and rural obesity rates did not exist in older age groups, but it was prominent in the 20-39 age group. Researchers say that technological advancements in labor that was previously more physically demanding can help explain why older rural residents don't see as high of an obesity rate.

"Physical activity is now needed to compensate for diet and technology," said Christie Befort, a professor at the University of Kansas and one of the study's authors, in a statement. "That requires cultural change because rural areas typically don't have a culture of physical activity as leisure time."

Photo: Flickr/Ed Yourdon

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