Southerners Not Fat, Just Honest

Southerners lie about their weight--but not as much as those lyin' Yankees.

Southerners lie about their weight–but not as much as those lyin’ Yankees. (“People in the South are not so fat after all — and they lie less“):

The South often gets tagged with having the most obese population.

But it doesn’t appear to be true, a University of Alabama at Birmingham study suggests.

The study recently published in the journal Obesity found that there’s a significantly higher percentage of obese people in a region of central and northwest states including Minnesota, Kansas and North and South Dakota.

“What we found is the West North Central region has about 41 percent obesity compared to 31 percent obesity in the southern region that includes Alabama and Mississippi,” said George Howard, professor in the Department of Biostatics at UAB. “By the way, 31 percent is not a good thing — but it’s not at the bottom.”

How did Southerners get such a fat reputation? Apparently because they are more truthful.

The notion that the South is the fattest comes primarily from a nationwide telephone survey done by the Centers for Disease Control, in which the surveyor asks for height and weight, among other things, Howard said.

That survey, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), shows the South as the most obese, with Mississippi and Alabama, the number one and two fattest states respectively.

But the UAB researchers found that when people were actually weighed, the numbers didn’t add up.

Mississippi was fourth and Alabama was in the middle of the pack, Howard said.

The numbers come from UAB’s long-running REGARDS (Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke) study.


By comparing the BRFSS self-reported weight data with the REGARDS scale-weight data, researchers found that most everyone fudges, or underreports, their weight when asked on a telephone.

Turns out that Southerners fudge less, he said.

The study analyzed the weights in the nine geographic regions used by the U.S. Census Bureau.

It found that the West North Central region, which includes Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and North and South Dakota, ranked fourth in obesity by the telephone survey results. But when actually weighed in the REGARDS study, people from that region ranked first in the nation for obesity.

In the telephone survey results, the East South Central region, which includes Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky, ranked highest. But when weighed, that southern region ranked fifth.

“It is hard to know exactly what is going on, but my speculation is that people in the South are telling the truth more,” Howard said. “Perhaps there is not as much stigma connected to obesity as say someone in California, or in this case, Minnesota.”

Go figure: the people who gave us fried turkey and fried okra are fat but don’t pretend not to be.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    I’ll bet it’s racial. More African-Americans in the south and perhaps they have less body shame.

  2. john personna says:

    Actually, not Yankees. The study finds a South vs. “central and northwest ” difference.

    Apparently the coasts are self-reporting fairly.

  3. John Burgess says:

    @john personna: Troops from Minnesota, Kansas, and the Dakota Territory fought primarily for the Union side — the Yankees — in the Civil War.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: That had occurred to me as well.

    @john personna: As @John Burgess notes, those people are Yankees in the Southern sense. Indeed, if you’re not from the South, you’re a Yankee to a Southerner.

  5. john personna says:

    Today I learned:

    You may not think of California when you think of the Civil War, but the war deeply divided Californians as it did the rest of the country. Secessionists dominated the Southern half of the state, while Northern California remained predominately pro-Union. Even before the war began, California played an important role in the fight over slavery, as events here helped to set the stage for war.

    I live in the South!

  6. Rob in CT says:

    Better headline: all regions fat, Southerners self-report more accurately.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Rob in CT: More accurate, maybe, but hardly better! Yes, we’re fat across the board. But the point is that we’ve falsely believed Southerners are especially fat because of a self-reported survey.

  8. Maybe Southerners like their food. From what I can tell, them Yankees just cain’t.

  9. steve s says:

    I live in the rural south. I’m 36 and still wear the same waist size (34) as when i graduated high school, because i don’t eat like the people around here. 32oz of mountain dew is not a normal part of a meal to me. My ex graduated with me, but moved away to california after high school, and only recently had to move back. She told me last year, “When I’m in irvine, I feel normal, when I’m back here I feel anorexic.”

    I’m not even trying to date again until i leave the region. I’m just not attracted to racist morbidly obese 30 yros with 4 kids

  10. steve s says:

    FFS the most popular restaurant in this town has, for moscots, a mom and a pa hog wearing overalls. no joke. The retail store I work in has 4 fat people scooters that a few customers are actually too big to fit in.

  11. @john personna:

    Until the Union captured Vicksburg and cut the CSA in two, there was a Confederate military presence as far west as the what is now the New Mexico/Arizona border.

  12. grumpy realist says:

    How much of this is due to a) diet b) portion size, or c) lack of exercise?

    I was at equilibrium at 130 lbs in Japan because if you’re in Tokyo you walkwalkwalk everywhere. Moved to London, went up a bit. Moved back to US, went up some more…

    This is a fat society. Not made any easier by people who have an attitude of “you can’t tell me what I can eat!”

    The problem with eating a farmer’s diet is you have to work like a farmer to keep it off….10 hours at a desk per day isn’t the same.

  13. steve s says:

    anyone have access to the paper and can tell us what all the regions’ rankings are?

  14. steve s says:

    the farmer’s diet comments are true, but it’s worse than that–on average americans eat 500+ more calories than 40 years ago. At some fast food places, a ‘medium’ drink won’t fit into my ford cupholders.

  15. NickTamere says:

    Something about this doesn’t seem right- while it’s very possible to be skinny and suffer from heart disease and diabetes, it’s far more likely if you’re obese. If you overlay maps showing diabetes, heart disease, and the (pre-adjusted) obesity map they match up pretty well. Shift the shading to the midwest and it no longer correlates to heart disease and diabetes. Either midwesterners have healthier ways of dealing with their obesity (keep in mind your average Sconnie lives off of beer, cheese, and sausage 6 months of the year) or the adjusted numbers need to be looked at again.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @steve s: PDF is here.

  17. steve s says:

    actually your diabetes map Does line up with Kansas and North and South Dakota, as well as the southeast..

  18. steve s says:

    Thanks james. Looks like i need to move somewhere west of texas.

    In related info, there was a study recently that found how much weight you’ll gain or lose in the next year can be guesstimated by the size of your closest friends. The more they weighed, the more you were likely to gain, and vice versa.

  19. steve s says:

    Pacific region had the lowest obesity, similar to what my ex said. (New england area was prob too small a sample to be reliable.)

  20. PD Shaw says:

    Weight is substantially heritable, so one should be able to look to race /ethnicity factors.

    john personna has a point, the new study has Missouri, identified as a Northern state, as the fattest. Outside of St. Louis and Kansas City, that would be fried poultry and fried okra country. (Indiana, ranked 5, also borders)

    Minnesota is third, and I have to wonder whether Northern Europeans do well under BMI. Anecdotally, I know too many big-boned men and women from Northern U.S., who are going to be at least slightly overweight no matter how much they exercise.

    Studies do not include Hispanics or Asians. That’s probably a benefit to areas with high Mexican-American population.

  21. PD Shaw says:

    Massachusetts appears to be the most honest — the only state where they appear to overstate their actual BMI.

  22. PD Shaw says:

    Here is the ranking of the 25 states on which they have data:

    Missouri (42.6)
    Minnesota (39.2)
    Louisiana (38.9)
    Mississippi (38.7)
    Indiana (37.8)
    Georgia (37.8)
    Wisconsin (37.4)
    South Carolina (37.4)
    Texas (37.4)
    Ohio (36.9)
    Arkansas (35.6)
    Pennsylvania (35.0)
    Alabama (35.0)
    North Carolina (34.9)
    Virginia (34.8)
    Florida (33.8)
    New York (33.6)
    Kentucky (31.9)
    California (31.9)
    Tennessee (31.7)
    Michigan (31.5)
    New Jersey (31.3)
    Illinois (31.1)
    Maryland (29.4)
    Massachusetts (17.6)

  23. john personna says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I have climbed Picacho Peak, a fun little hike if you are ever on the road between Phoenix and Tuscon. The westernmost battle of the Civil War was fought below.

  24. Ben Wolf says:

    @grumpy realist:

    The problem with eating a farmer’s diet is you have to work like a farmer to keep it off….10 hours at a desk per day isn’t the same.

    Relates to a fascinating paper published recently. Recommended for anyone with an interest in nutrition:

  25. Andre Kenji says:

    Here in Brazil, it´s a cliché to say that someone went to the US and gained weight while there.

  26. grumpy realist says:

    @Ben Wolf: interesting article, although I’m dubious of some of his claims of fantastic foodstuff for the Victorians. It doesn’t do you much good to have absolutely fresh Brussels sprouts (or carrots, or whatever) if you boil it to death before eating it. And I thought that organic-veggies-have-more-vitamins has been debunked?

  27. grumpy realist says:

    @Ben Wolf: I’m also wondering about the claim of Victorian beer being less alcoholic. These were the guys that came up with Imperial Stout, remember….

    Also, not a mention of the gin houses? I never remember any period of time where one couldn’t get stinkingly drunk in England….

  28. george says:

    @PD Shaw:

    Minnesota is third, and I have to wonder whether Northern Europeans do well under BMI. Anecdotally, I know too many big-boned men and women from Northern U.S., who are going to be at least slightly overweight no matter how much they exercise.

    As you no doubt know, BMI is a horrible measure of obesity. The average Olympian is overweight, and many are obese. Same for NHL players, and even most NBA players are overweight according to BMI.

    A much better measure is height to waist ratio (works much better for health predictions as well). If your waist circumference measured just above your navel is half or less of your height, you’re not overweight. The results are good whether you’re fit or a couch potato, unlike BMI (which more and more doctors, including my own, are ignoring as misleading or just plain useless).

  29. Ben Wolf says:

    @grumpy realist: Depends on the vegetable. Also depends on the study, but even if nutrient content is identical, the mid-Victorians ate far more fresh produce than we do, and it wasn’t laced with pesticides.

    @grumpy realist:

    Also, not a mention of the gin houses? I never remember any period of time where one couldn’t get stinkingly drunk in England….

    The only mention of gin in the study was that it wasn’t considered a respectable drink. I’m still not giving up my Sapphire.