Thursday, September 4, 2008

My Fat Kentucky Home (Part 1)

A few weeks ago I went to Owensboro, Kentucky to visit my mother, who has lived there for 39 years. She's been ill over the last few months, and in and out of the hospital. During her last hospital stay, doctors advised her that if she doesn't radically alter her diet – ie: no salt, low fat, restricted liquid intake – she won't live much longer. She's 64. I've been telling her this for YEARS as I watched her health continue to decline, but it seems hearing it from a hospital bed was impactful. So, she's supposedly been following this new diet, complaining loudly every step of the way, but adhering nonetheless. So far she's lost about 25 pounds and has been able to go off almost all of her literally dozens of medications. Her kidneys and heart, which were showing signs of failure, have reversed themselves, and she has more energy than she's had in years. She has a long way to go, but these are miraculous results in such a short time.

Results that occurred after just a few weeks of diet changes that essentially cut out all processed, high fat, high salt foods and replaced them with lots of fresh vegetables, fish, and whole grains.

I had several revelations while visiting the town where I grew up about diet, good health, my childhood exploits, and even a juicy one about my mother's love life (she divulged that over the course of her life EIGHT men have left their wives for her!). However, it was certainly not a revelation for me to hear the positive health impact diet changes can have on health. It probably isn't much of a revelation for those of us who live in California or other big cities, either. It has been quite a revelation to my mother, and data would suggest it would be a revelation to others in the state, as well.

While I was in Kentucky, the 2008 Fattest States Survey was released with much media fanfare. Kentucky came in as the seventh fattest state with 70% of adults overweight and almost 30% classified as obese. Just over the river from Owensboro, Indiana was celebrating the 'good news' that they moved from 9th to 11th place.

As I look down the list of statistics for all 50 states, I don't see much reason for any of them to celebrate. The least fat state is Colorado where 56% of adults are overweight and 19.3% are obese. Every single state has seen an increase in their adult obesity rate over the last year (except for D.C. with a decrease of -.1).

I place this study alongside my mother's recent efforts to change her diet, and I worry over her ability to be successful in the long term—because as bad as the news is from the Fattest States Survey, the news is even worse for Owensboro in particular. In the 1980's, Owensboro was dubbed the "Fast Food Capital of the World" because it was found that the city consumed more fast food per capita than anywhere else. 60% of the adults in Owensboro are obese.

A quick drive up Frederica Street, the main artery of the city, will take you past about 100 fast food or chain restaurants within a two mile span. This stretch was also famous in the 1980's for the sheer volume of fast food restaurants packed into such a small geographical space. It has become less famous now because so many cities in our country have duplicated this kind of fast food strip.

Another point of fame for Owensboro, which has proclaimed itself the BBQ capital of the world, is the International BBQ Festival which takes place each year on the city's riverfront. When I was growing up, this was a small local festival where church groups would turn up to compete in Burgoo (BBQ stew) contests, and the city's famous Moonlight BBQ restaurant would have a large booth for serving mutton and BBQ ribs. I went to the festival a few years ago for a dose of nostalgia and it has grown into an event of 50,000 people (the population of Owensboro is 55,000). The entire downtown area is taken over with BBQ pavilions and Funnel Cake stations, and smoke from miles of cooking meat pervades the entire city for days.

Again, that is a 60% adult obesity rate in Owensboro…

When fast food restaurants dominate the landscape and the biggest cultural event is a three day food-glut, how can a city like Owensboro ever hope to make progress, and what are my mother's long term chances to change her way of life? The entire city seems to conspire against her as the holy trinity of Cracker Barrel, Olive Garden, and Denny's beckons, visible from her living room window. Meanwhile, the produce at the local grocery store is tasteless, only frozen fish is available, and organic is relegated to the bottom shelf in the back of the store.

Still, she's making progress. And, I'm daring to be hopeful.

Stay tuned…