Why Red States Suffer Greater Obesity

Why might there be a correlation between obesity and voting patterns?

Posted Nov 10, 2020

The pattern is unmistakable. The states having the highest obesity rates also voted Republican in the 2012 presidential election. Close to the top are Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Indiana, etc. What might this mean for obesity prevention?

While political leaning is predictive of weight problems at the state level, this connection could well be due to other factors, such as education level, poverty, or ethnic group. When such factors were excluded in a study of US counties, political orientation still emerged as a strong predictor of obesity rates.

Assuming that this correlation is meaningful, it suggests two categories of explanation — emotional and behavioral.

Anger and Anxiety

A substantial body of research now finds that political conservatives believe we live in a dangerous world. This greater sense of threat is associated with a larger limbic system of the brain that processes fear.

Because they perceive the world as threatening, conservatives are more interested in having a strong military and are more likely to buy weapons for personal defense.

Psychologists recognize that eating serves emotional functions in addition to providing needed nutrients for survival and health. Many people binge on high-calorie foods when they are experiencing stressful circumstances.

Body fat is also predicted by the personality trait of hostility. Hostile individuals are more vulnerable to heart disease and this vulnerability is associated with greater fat deposition around the abdomen.

Another connection between politics and corpulence is provided by lifestyle differences.

Sedentary Lifestyle and TV Habit

A sedentary lifestyle is probably the single most important cause of obesity in modern societies considering that when most people lived as subsistence farmers, there was almost no obesity even though they evidently consumed more food per person.

Most Americans spend a lot of time watching screens whether streaming content, cable news, or network TV. This means that they spend a lot of time sitting down, a habit that contributes to overweight and multiple related health problems.

The kind of television conservatives watch could also matter. Fox Television offers a glimpse of the sort of content that attracts conservatives. Although the audience is a relatively small segment of the US population, their programming offers a distorted worldview that feeds on partisan conflict and spreads multiple baseless conspiracy theories that seem designed to evoke fear and anger.

It would be interesting to know whether Fox News promotes obesity along with political hatred. Political divergence in diet may also matter.

Meat Eating and Diet

While a lot of people believe that vegetarianism would be a good idea, there are very few actual vegetarians. These are more likely to be progressives, given the salience of the environmental rationale for avoiding meat.

Republicans eat more meat than Democrats. They consume more high-calorie foods and eat fewer fruits and vegetables. Moreover, they exercise less. All of these behaviors contribute to general health problems and encourage the storage of excess body fat.

Among liberals, meat consumption declined in recent years as they responded to concerns about the impact of animal agriculture on the environment. Interestingly, meat consumption by conservatives increased during the same period as though eating more meat was some sort of political statement related to climate change denial.

There is a price to be paid by future generations for climate denial but conservatives face a more immediate personal cost for unwise health behavior.