INTERACTIVE: Why is the South the most obese part of the country? Five theories

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This map displays the obesity rate of each U.S. state in 2010. The darker shade red represents a higher percentage of obese residents, while the green represents states with lower obesity rates. Click on each state to see the exact totals of each state's obesity rate.* 

Southerners need to lay off of the Crisco, cut back on the processed foods and start spending more time on the treadmill to fight the growing epidemic of obesity, experts say.

According to 2010 data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the South is the most obese region in the nation, with about one in three of its residents classifying as chronically obese. That's far greater than the entire nation, where the figure is closer to one in four.

Of the 10 states with the highest rates of adult obesity, eight of them are in the South: Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas and Tennessee. And that's only assuming you don't count West Virginia as being "southern."

Across the nation, the epidemic has grown worse in recent years. Twelve states now have obesity rates higher than 30 percent, compared to four years ago when only one state, Mississippi, ranked above the 30 percent threshold. The only state in the Deep South without an obesity rate of more than 30 percent today is Georgia, but that appears to be primarily because the more physically fit population of metro Atlanta offsets the rest of the state's obesity.

But what's making the South –– the region CDC Dr. William Dietz has dubbed "the heart disease and stroke belt" –– more chubby than the rest of the nation? Here are five possible explanations:

1. High poverty -– The South may be obese, but it's also poor. With a poverty rate of 14 percent, the South is easily the most impoverished region in the country. And according to data from the USDA, states with a higher poverty rate also tend to have a higher number of obese citizens. Experts say that's because people with a low income are more likely to purchase high-calorie inexpensive processed foods, which contribute to weight gain. "If you overlay a map of obesity onto a map of poverty, the two very clearly correspond," said David A. Davis, a professor of Southern Studies at Mercer University who has conducted extensive research on southern foodways. "The southern diet is a diet of poverty, and it's one based on cheap, fatty processed foods."

2. The "grocery gap" – Because the South is largely rural, many residents don't have quality access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and are forced to drive long distances to find anything healthier than potato chips and sodas at roadside gas stations. All five states with above average of what the USDA calls "food insecurity" levels are located in the South: Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina. What's more, it's significantly more expensive to purchase low-fat items in the South than in the rest of the nation. For example, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia all topped the list of states where it costs the most to buy low-fat milk, USDA data says.

3. The grease-fed "southern" culinary tradition -– One of the easiest explanations for the South's staggering obesity rates is the region's tradition of fried chicken, sweet tea and gravy on top of everything – or what's commonly referred to by non-southerners as the "Paula Deen" effect. "To me, it's simply a cultural habit regarding what we eat, not an issue of poverty," says Andy Breck, director of the Center for a Better South, a nonprofit group based out of the University of South Carolina that seeks to raise awareness about ongoing issues facing the region. "People are fat in Mississippi. People are fat in South Carolina. People are fat in Alabama. There's got to be something going on. And it's not just poor people. It's middle and upper-class folks who grotesquely overeat, because that's all they've ever known to do."

4. Lack of physical activity–– Southerners also tend to be less physically active than the rest of the country, burning off fewer calories and retaining more body fat, USDA data says. All five U.S. states where less than 60 percent of adults met the USDA's recommended physical activity guidelines in 2008 were located below the Mason Dixon Line: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. Some researchers have speculated that the South's lack of physical activity may not be so much sheer laziness as it is a lack of access to places to exercise. Few rural areas have fancy private gyms for southerners to burn off their extra calories, and most of the year it's just too plain hot in the South to exercise outdoors.

5. Lack of quality education – Perhaps at the heart of the southern obesity epidemic, however, is the region's crippling lack of quality public education. "I don't buy the fact that the South is fat because of traditional southern foodways," said Davis, who teaches classes on southern poverty and culture and has written numerous articles on the subject. "To me, it's more of a poverty and an educational problem. If we don't educate people, especially in terms of health education, we're going to keep having obese citizens."

*Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 3, 2012

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