Want to lose weight? Drink (Good) Beer

I just could not resist writing about this when I stumbled upon the interesting factoid about beer and obesity:  States with the highest number of craft beers per 100,000 people also have lower obesity rates (for those of you statistically inclined, the correlation rate is -0.54).  This observation comes from The Atlantic Cities website, which did a report on the increase of craft beer breweries in the United States (there are more craft breweries now than any time since 1887).  What is even more interesting was the quick set of correlations they performed, including the one I just mentioned above.

Let’s work through this relationship. Below are the maps showing US Obesity rates in 2010 (from my previous post) and the map put together by The Atlantic Cities showing the number of craft breweries per 100,000 people, for each state.

First thing to note here, is that many of the the red states on the left (indicating states with adult obesity rates greater than 30%) overlap with the light purple states on the right (indicating that there is, on average, less than 1 craft brewery in the state for every 100,000 people).  I said mostly overlap, as there a few red states (like Michigan) that are a medium-purple too, which tells us that some heavily obese states  average between 2-3 craft breweries per 100,000 people.  Second, notice that dark purple states on the right (indicating, on average 3 or more craft breweries per 100,000 people) are also yellow states on the left (indicating adult obesity rates between 20-25%): Vermont, Montana, and Oregon So now I can add drinking my loveable “Old Chub” Scottish Ale as a good substitute for running home from work once a week!

Of course, I’m having fun – because obviously, drinking beer (even yummy craft brews) does not make you thin.  As we all know (and the The Atlantic Cities website is quick to point out) correlation only shows how well two things are related – not that one causes the other.   The question now is, are there any obvious characteristics that make Vermont, Montana, and Oregon polar opposites of places like Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia, and could possibly be related to both obesity and craft breweries? 

I had two, and neither seem all that probable:  The first is mostly related to Montana, Oregon, and Vermont.  All three are what we could call ‘outdoorsy’ states, and are known for adventure tourism (like skiing, hiking, camping, etc).  So that might explain the low obesity rates – high exercise and activity. How does this relate to craft breweries?  My best guess is, with vacationing and adventure goes drinking and eating good food, and craft breweries would fair well in these states.  As far as I know, few people plan adventure-related vacations to places like Mississippi, West Virginia, or Texas (does anyone really plan a vacation to Texas?).

The second is better education, particularly in agriculture and sciences.  There is already a fairly decent correlation with overall education and decreases in obesity, and The Atlantic Cities website also showed a weak, positive correlation with craft brewery and adults with college degrees (0.32).  Ask any brewer, and he or she will tell you that making beer (or wine for that matter) is highly scientific, and requires lots of chemistry and math.  You need a population that is willing and able to use science everyday as part of its job.  The central US states do not fair well in reports on science and engineering education studies (Mississippi ranked last in all the states on the Science and Engineering Readiness Index of high school students).  So perhaps the underlying cause between craft brewery and obesity is better educational attainment.

As I said, neither are that great at explaining the correlation; if anyone has better ideas, fire away!

Finally, here are two more interesting correlations with craft breweries: Craft brewing is less likely in conservative states, with a modest negative correlation (-0.30) to 2008 John McCain votes (there was no statistically-significant association to Barack Obama votes); And craft brewing is more closely associated with higher levels of happiness and well-being (0.47).

Hurray Beer!

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Spend More, Weigh Less?

If you want to drop some pounds, then perhaps you should drop more cash on the food you eat.  You might think I’m joking, but there is some logic to this.  According to the US Dept of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (where you can find HOURS’ worth of fun numbers; and no, I’m not being facetious, just a geek), I came across the following report.

If you compare the US, UK, Canada and Japan, the chart demonstrates that Americans spend far less on food (almost half of what the Japanese spend) than our economic rivals. In 2009, of all the money Japanese consumers spent, 21.8% went towards food.  That is more than what they spend on housing.  In the US, we only spent 14.9%.  In other words, at the end of the month when you add up all your receipts, Americans only spend approximately $15 out of every $100 on food.  One thing we like in the US is cheap food, and we have some of the cheapest food in the world.

In my “Culture and Politics of Food” class, we just finished covering US Federal subsidies for commodity crops, especially corn.  These policies harken back to the 1970s, when Nixon (and then Ford) were feeling the pressure of rising food costs and the need to get reelected. As a response they appealed to US Dept of Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz to do something.  And something he did.  By encouraging, and then enticing through cash subsidies, farmers to plant crops “from fence post to fence post,” Butz increased US grain production.  Butz wanted US crops to be cheap and plentiful – so cheap and plentiful that we could use them for anything (like making sugar – or high fructose corn syrup) and to export them to other countries, like Russia.  And one of the outcomes that Butz bragged about from his tenure as Agriculture Secretary was how little Americans spent on food.

Some researchers and public health advocates claim that our cheap (and therefore abundant) food is a root cause of the US Obesity epidemic.  With food so cheap, we eat lots of it.  And what we eat is not necessarily very satiating, and therefore we continue to eat more.  If cheap food is related to obesity then we would predict from the US labor charts that the US would have a higher obesity rate than Japan (or for that matter, the UK or Canada).

Et voila.  If we surf the web, we can find a paper in the Oxford International Journal of Epidemiology on obesity rates for 2nd and 1st world countries.  And in 2001 the US was top notch with 63% of the population being overweight, and 28% being so overweight they were considered obese.  The UK is missing from the study, but Canada has 47% overweight and 15% obesity rates, while Japan comes in with the staggering 23% overweight and 3% obesity rates.

This is, of course, correlation, and that doesn’t prove that cheap food makes us obese.  But it lends credence to the idea that our culture of food is a bit wacked, and causing us to be heavy.  Americans think a good meal is one where you get tons of food for little money; just look at how many restaurants have super-size deals, or in grocery stores how many boxes say “Get twice as much for only 50% more!”  And if we dig a little deeper into the expenditures from the Dept of Labor,  we see that what money Americans do spend on food, almost half is spent eating outside of the home (41.1%), while in Japan less than a quarter of money for food is spent outside the home (21.4%).

The New Defintion of a Red State

Let’s go back to 1985.  Not because of the awesome music (although, has anyone else noticed that Lady Gaga sounds so much like Madonna?  But I digress).  We’re going back to 1985 for that cutting-edge technology.

Computerized phone banks.

You see, in the days when The Cosby Show and Miami Vice ruled the airwaves, the high techno geeks were in the laboratory playing with the genetics of computer databases and fiber optics.  And what was born was the ability to have a computer automatically dial random numbers from a database.  Never again would a family make it through Sunday night dinner without a telemarketer calling to sell them long-distance packages.  But something really useful did come from this – the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, or the BRFSS.

Despite the James Bond sounding name, the BRFSS was simply a system to call random phone numbers in the US, and then ask adults to answer question about their behavior and health.  Created by the CDC, the BRFSS collected data not just on how healthy we were (“Have you been diagnosed with diabetes?) but also about your behaviors (“How often do you wear your seatbelt?”).  The idea was, in order to be a healthy person you actually had to behave like a healthy person.  All the wishing in the world would not keep you from getting heart disease: Eating a healthy diet and not smoking would, though.

The BRFSS also collected gender, height, weight, age, and of course, where you lived (according to area code, which in the early 1980s was tied to your actual location, not the address of where you bought your cell phone).  And with this information epidemiologists at the CDC started tracking BMI, or Body Mass Index I know what you are going say – everyone hates the BMI, and that it is a poor tool for determining if someone is too fat.  But the BMI does do something really well:  It gives the relationship between height and weight as a single number.  And given that the BRFSS surveys all 50 states, and US territories, it is powerful.  More than 150,000 adults are surveyed each month, and from it we can track BMI in the United States, going as far back as 1985.

So, how many people in the United States had a BMI of greater than 30 (which qualifies as obese) in 1985?


Only a handful of states did the BRFSS in 1985, but from the data we have, all looks pretty good.  Most states had obesity rates of less than 10%, and only eight had rates between 10-15%.  Awesome, as they would have said back then.

So what happened between then and now?

Times were still lean, so to speak, in 1990.  By then almost all the states are collecting data, and obesity rates in all states are less than 15%.  Lots of pretty, light blue.

But something really dramatic happened by 2000.  Now we have all 50 states collecting data, and there is a huge pocket in the central and southern US where 1 out of every 4 US adult is obese.   Line up all your friends, start counting them, and it would go like this:  “One.  Two.  Three.  OBESE.  Five.  Six.  Seven.  OBESE.”  Way to go Ohio, Texas, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia…….  And aside from Colorado (the only light blue state left), the rest of the states have obesity rates of 15 – 20%.

And today (well, 2010 – the most recent data set we have)?  Hides your eyes, it is not pretty.

According to the CDC, over 30% of US adults are obese.  That is 1 in 3, people.  “One. Two. Obese.  Four.  Five.  Obese.  Seven.  Eight.  Obese.”  And notice there is no more blue.  The last ‘blue’ state was Colorado, and up until 2009, it was the only US state or territory that had an obesity rate of less than 20%.  Stop your bragging, Colorado.  You’re one of us now.

So what is the take home here?  Remember, the BMI has both height and weight in it.  So we could argue that only height is changing, and that is why the BMI is changing over time.  But since the BMI is your weight divided by your height-squared, that means the average height of all US adult has to shrink.  And we know that is not happening.

In my obesity class, I tell my students that BMI is not a perfect tool for determining if a single individual (you, or me, or your best friend) is too fat.  But it is the perfect tool for tracking what is happening, on average, in a population – like the United States.  And quite frankly, the United States is fat.  And getting fatter.