Obesity worries food-loving Tennesseans

Obesity worries food-loving Tennesseans

June 20th, 2011 by By Jennifer Brooks/The Tennessean in News


The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions has created the Vanderbilt Poll with support from Peabody College and with The Tennessean as a media partner.

The poll was conducted by calling a random sample of landline telephone numbers over a period of six days, June 3-8.

With 700 respondents, the margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 3.7 percent.


• Do you support offering schoolchildren free access to fresh fruits, vegetables and low-fat milk, even if it cost taxpayers an extra $50 a year?

Yes: 65 percent

No: 28 percent

• Do you support a tax on junk food similar to those on cigarettes and alcohol?

Yes: 32 percent

No: 58 percent

• Do you support requiring health insurers to charge higher premiums for policyholders who are overweight or who fail to exercise regularly?

Yes: 31 percent

No: 56 percent

• Should food carry warning labels similar to those on cigarettes and alcohol?

Yes: 63 percent

No: 27 percent

Note: Numbers don't add up to 100 percent because not all responses are included, such as "Don't know."

Source: Vanderbilt Poll

NASHVILLE - Tennessee has a love-hate relationship with food.

The state loves its sweet, salty, doughy, deep-fried Southern comfort foods. But Tennessee's eating habits are one of the reasons the state sits at the bottom of most national rankings for obesity and overall health - and there's nothing to love about that.

"It's a cultural thing," said Jerry Goad, pausing during one of his thrice-weekly visits to the Cool Springs YMCA to ponder the question of why Tennesseans struggle so with their weight and health.

Many people, he said, are carrying over the eating habits of a time when this was a much more rural state.

"People ate well and worked hard. Nowadays, we don't work quite as hard, but we're still eating the same way."

A new poll by Vanderbilt University surveyed Tennesseans' attitudes toward food and food policy and found plenty of people who are worried about weight, but there is very little agreement about how to help people get healthier.

Vanderbilt researchers were interested to see which public policy solutions to the obesity problem might be palatable to Tennessee voters: Junk food taxes? Free fruits and vegetables in school lunches? Warning labels on unhealthy foods? Higher insurance rates for heavier policyholders?

This is a state where the obesity rate topped 32.3 percent in 2009, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and where the Tennessee Department of Education estimates that 20 percent of children in the state are obese.

"The results might help us to understand what policies Tennesseans might be willing to support," said Vanderbilt political science professor Monique Lyle, who will be mining the poll data for more insight into attitudes among the state's residents.

So far, she said, Tennesseans' opinions are in line with national polls on obesity fixes - except a slightly higher percentage said they would support the idea of a tax on junk food.

Cheap and easy food

More than half of survey respondents agreed or somewhat agreed, with this statement: "A big problem in this country, especially in the inner city, is that we're surrounded by choices that are cheap and easy but not good for us. We have become so used to eating fatty, sugary foods that healthy foods are lost in a sea of unhealthy alternatives."

Cheatham County resident Lynda LeMay threaded her way between piles of produce at the Nashville Farmers Market, deliberately turning her back on the tempting selection of barbecue, gyros, falafel and desserts in the food court.

"The problem is, what you buy in the store is usually packed with all sorts of sugar and fat," she said, looking around at the tomatoes, squashes, peaches and canned preserves on display. "Everything here is good for you."

Picking through zucchini, teacher Paul Beavers said his school, J.T. Moore Middle School, works hard to encourage students to make healthy eating decisions - from more fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria to inviting parents to come in and host a cooking demonstration.

"Kids follow the lead of their parents," Beavers said. "The problems for some parents is that they just don't have the money or the access" to the healthiest food options.

Biscuits and gravy

For Carole Hallum, of Brentwood, who works out at the Cool Springs Y, staying healthy is a matter of personal responsibility - and it comes with its own rewards.

Weight lifting helped her recover from painful knee surgery several years ago, it improves her balance, and she hopes it will extend her life and her quality of life.

"I know a lot of people my age who do nothing and sit in a chair. A lot of people really enjoy getting old," said Hallum, 77.

Tammy Bullock, a ministry student at Belmont University, hefted a set of barbells as she ran through her personal recipe for healthy living: eating healthy foods - more in the morning than in the evening - and working out at the Y several times a week.

She grew up in a family plagued by weight-related health problems like obesity.

"I think there's a mindset" in Tennessee about food and comfort food, she said. "And fine, if you want to gather the family around the table for biscuits and gravy, but perhaps, if you go for a walk around the block afterward, that would be good, too."