Nashville’s obesity crisis is worsening: At 28.8%, the percentage of residents who are obese increased roughly two points last year, while the number of overweight residents rose to 39%, up from 35.5%.
No one should be surpised at learning that Nashville is the 7th most obese city in the U.S. As one who falls into the category of obese, I think there are many reasons for this fact, beyond the issue of willpower and discipline (although that is certainly part of the issue).
- Nashville is primarily a suburban culture.
Although there is a revitalization of the downtown core, for the most part Nashville is a city of suburbs connected by feeder roads and interstates, surrounding a commercial district. This means that Nashville is a culture in which driving is the primary means of locomotion, and there are few opportunities for walking. It is an absolute reality in this town that one has to have a car to exist, for the distances involved and more importantly the lack of sidewalks and bike lanes (see below) as well as a poor mass transit system leads to the automobile as necessity rather than luxury.
- A pattern of development and a tax base unwilling to invest in pedestrian infrastructure.
When recent zoning codes started requiring builders to construct sidewalks in front of their property one would have thought that the world was coming to an end given the moaning of developers. However, that requirement was the only way to move Nashville to invest in building sidewalks. It’s interesting that most schools have to involve police escorts and shutting down roads for the annual Mayor’s “Walk to School” day because the schools are located in areas where it is impossible if not dangerous for our kids to walk to school. The creation of the greenways is a step in the right direction, however they continue to be poorly marketed and underutilized. On the down side, they feed into the notion of walking as a leisure time luxury rather than a necessity for getting from one place to another. Likewise, sidewalks are seen as a luxury to create an atmosphere of neighborhood rather than as a system of “pedestrian roads,” designed to get folks from one place to another. Thus, we never walk because to do so is to take our life in our hands.
- A culture that sees non-automotive forms of transportation as a nuisance.
The only thing more dangerous than walking in Nashville is riding a bike. Just as there are no sidwalks, there are no bike lanes either. And, in the land of NASCAR influenced and yellow light running driving, a bicyclist is seen as a public nuisance only right above a skunk or possum in the middle of the road.
- Our identity as the L.A. of the South
Let’s face it, we have a lot of “power meetings” over meals. Be it in the entertainment industry of newcomers or the old timers in banking and publishing, we transact a lot of business in restaurants. However, our restaurant culture is more influenced by the meat and three than the sushi bar. When one looks around town, we quickly realize that there are few healthy alternatives where we can meet. Some of the great alternatives — the Grateful Breadbox, Country Life, etc. — have been run off by higher fat alternatives. Vegetarian or healthy lifestyle restaurants are few and far between . . . and if one moves out of the trendy areas of Hillsboro Village, East Nashville, or Waverly Belmont, it becomes even harder as family owned alternatives have been run out of town by the mega restaurant chains built on large portions and high fat content. Combine all of that with an overworked culture of persons with long commutes, a lack of neighborhood cohesion, and lifestyles that demand too many meals in car from drive-thrus, and you have a populus that is too heavy.
Look, I am not trying to make excuses for my lack of discipline and struggle with an addiction to a lifestyle that makes losing weight difficult. There is no doubt that the responsibility lies with me, and that there is only so much a society can do to help those addicted to food.
But a society can do things that help its addicted persons to overcome their addiction. If we are happy with being the seventh most obese city in the nation, then we might as well maintain the status quo and work our way up to number one.
It’s my hope that our compassion for our neighbors (or even the reality that their problems are affecting our pocketbooks in higher medical costs) will lead us to begin thinking about spending now for our health. Otherwise, we will certainly be spending later.