Country Living, Bigger Belt Size? The Surprising Link Between Rural Life and Obesity

If you live in a rural area, surrounded by picturesque farm fields and tranquil open spaces, your health may be at risk. Surprising research has discovered that those who live in the countryside are more likely to be seriously overweight or obese than their city-dwelling counterparts. Additionally, those living in poverty in rural areas are at significant risk of other health problems along with obesity.

Nutritional aspects

Christie Befort, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Kansas Medical Center, believes part of the explanation for the higher obesity rates in rural areas might be dietary. “There is a definite cultural diet in rural America, full of rich, homemade foods including lots of meat and dessert,” observes Befort. While homemade dinners could be filled with fresh vegetables and lean proteins in ideal situations, the reality is that most rural dishes are high-calorie meals featuring heavy sauces, lots of starches, and calorie-dense desserts.

Access to fresh fruits and vegetables could be a challenge for rural communities, particularly those in “food deserts,” where healthy food options might be hard to come by. In these areas, farmer’s markets and grocery stores with plentiful produce sections could be replaced by small convenience stores stocked with processed foods, damaging the overall nutritional landscape of rural America.

Physical isolation

Befort also cites “physical isolation” as a possible reason for the increased obesity rates in rural regions. “Access is often about travel time in a rural area, but it can also be that there’s no place to go — literal physical isolation,” she says. It’s difficult to maintain an active lifestyle when the nearest gym or recreational facility is a good distance away. The lack of nearby amenities might leave residents with few options for regular physical activities.

Living in a rural environment might also limit opportunities for walking or cycling as daily modes of transportation, since distances between home, work, and other necessary locations could be too extensive compared to urban environments.

The impact of poverty

Poverty plays a significant role in the obesity epidemic in rural America. Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, warns that ignoring the link between the two could be detrimental to the overall health of the nation. “We simply cannot ignore the link between obesity and poverty, and the disproportionate impact this is having on rural America,” says Morgan. “If we truly want to decrease health care costs and improve the nation’s health status, we are going to have to start viewing obesity as a top-tier public health concern for rural Americans.”

A call for intervention

Addressing this issue will require strategic intervention at multiple levels. For those in the medical field, it could be beneficial to emphasize the importance of healthy and active lifestyles in rural areas, using patient visits as an opportunity to educate individuals on portion control, balanced diets, and how to find or create cost-effective, healthy meals.

Community stakeholders could also work together to open up more opportunities for physical activity in rural neighborhoods. If a gym is not an available option, residents might consider neighborhood walking groups, team sports, or utilizing community resources, such as local schools or churches with fitness equipment or open fields.

Additionally, advocating for and supporting the implementation of farmer’s markets, grocery stores, and other establishments that offer fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables could help break down the barriers to better nutrition often experienced by those living in rural communities.

Addressing the obesity issue in rural areas is a complex challenge that cannot be overcome quickly, but with effort and collaboration, it is possible to create healthier lives for everyone living in the picturesque landscape of the countryside.