Opinion

Felix Salmon

The urban diet

By Felix Salmon
September 27, 2009

James Fallows has a correspondent who drives a lot, and is overweight, and who writes:

Car culture is terrible for public health. Again, I’m significantly overweight. Always trying new exercise and diet programs that never result in sustained weight loss. What has? Spent two months in London without car, relying on public transit and walking, no attempt at dieting or exercising. Weight loss: 22 lbs. Six weeks in NYC without car, relying on public transit and walking, no attempt… Weight loss: 19 lbs.

In general, the urban no-car diet is a very good one, and not just because you’re getting incidental exercise from walking more than you otherwise might. If you don’t have a car, you generally have much less food at home, because you don’t have access to “free” transportation in which you can transport hundreds of dollars’ worth of food from your local supermarket and deposit it in a monster-size refrigerator.

Dense urban centers also tend to offer much more expensive dining options. Sure, you can find fast food if you want it. But the fast food is surrounded by restaurants you actually want to go to, and since they’re just as convenient, you don’t have the “no choice” excuse that you have when you stop off next to the freeway. So you gravitate to the more expensive (and generally intrinsically healthier) options. And as any economist will tell you, the amount you consume goes down as the price goes up.

More generally, living car-free in a dense urban environment forces you to spend effort and money on eating, which makes you appreciate food more, rather than absent-mindedly shovelling down an unknown quantity of something random while watching the TV. Which makes me wonder: could even suburban people with cars lose a significant amount of weight simply by getting rid of their televisions?

Comments
15 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

In a city like Los Angeles, where the fast food restaurants are unappealing because they’re filling with homeless people, a car is what encourages people to still eat at them. You realize how dependent fast food is on the drive-thru when you spend time in a place like New York City. It never even occurs to you that would you eat at a Wendys.

 

I think that grocery stores and restaurants should be required to sell vanilla products as well. It’s delicious and has no trans fat.

Posted by q | Report as abusive
 

I had a very similar experience. I’ve always been a bit overweight, despite attempts to regulate my diet and physical activity. I moved from the US to a UK city where I had no car, and dropped 30 pounds in four months. And being a student, I arguably ate worse in the UK – beer every night and carryouts on a regular basis.

Posted by WHS | Report as abusive
 

Even the simplest survey of people in cities and suburbs would reveal that people who live in cities are thinner than those who live in the suburbs. If you see an obese person in NYC, for example, I would bet there’s better than a 50% chance the person is a tourist. Or a banker (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Posted by KenG | Report as abusive
 

The one downside to urban living though is air quality. I love living without the responsibility of the car. (Walking in rain, snow, and cold weather with several bags of groceries builds character.) However, when I visit my folks who live in the suburbs, I love the much more breathable air!

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive
 

@Anonymous: the air in New York City would be almost primordially breathable if trucks and other commercial vehicles were subjected to particulate-matter-emissions regulation. What New York has in this case is a bit of concentrated country.

 

I, too, drive a lot and am overweight. The thing that gets me is eating in the car. I am often squeezing in lunch or dinner while driving between meetings. Eating a Quarter Pounder With Cheese, fries and a shake is much easier to do while driving than eating a salad.

Posted by Dire Strait | Report as abusive
 

Actually, you appear to have the causation exactly wrong according to this study:

(The study) tracks the data of nearly 6,000 people over a six-year study period. During this period 79% of the subjects changed addresses. These movers allowed the authors to identify the effect of sprawl on weight….

The paper concludes that people who are more likely to be obese are more likely to move to sprawling neighbourhoods. The debate over obesity is ideologically charged and these results are likely to be controversial and (in some circles) unpopular. The findings suggest that the public-health battle against obesity is better fought on ground other than the urban-planner’s drawing board.

Via Avent: http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/22 1

Posted by OGT | Report as abusive
 

One cause this discusssion has missed is good, old fashioned boredom. Live in a small town or an exurb and eating becomes among the most stimulating and social of activities. In New York, London, Tokyo, etc. cuisine is often of higher quality, but there are many other outlets for stimulation and so food is less likely to become an obsession.

Posted by Anonymous2 | Report as abusive
 

“The one downside to urban living though is air quality.”

Try Hamburg, it’s not exactly a famous metropol, and yet it is a big city. The air quality however is still quite good IMO…

Posted by Peter | Report as abusive
 

“The one downside to urban living though is air quality.”

Try Denver or Boulder, CO. Fresh clean mountain air, STRONG public transportation, and STRONG bike cultures (bike racks in front of almost EVERY store… even mopeds/scooters can legally park on the sidewalk!).

I’m from a suburb of Boston called southern New Hampshire. I always marveled at the MBTA, and wished Manchester would mimic Boston in that respect.

(For those that don’t live in NH, this is a state that spent MOST of it’s stimulus money re-paving highway routes which were in good shape and less than 6 years old…. no widening of roads, no bike paths, just re-paving over still-fresh route 101 pavement).

Anyways, Denver rocks and if it had an IT market comparable to Boston, I’d trade my Red Sox cap for a Rockies in 2 seconds flat (besides, Rockies tickets can be bought at any supermarket, and they’re MUCH cheaper than Boston).

Posted by Scott | Report as abusive
 

From a nutritional perspective, your argument only seems to hold for affluent neighborhoods:

http://postbourgie.com/2009/09/24/more-s upermarkets-please/

More broadly, even the most bike/pedestrian friendly cities are epicenters of car culture, with all of the attendant noise pollution, air pollution, traffic hazards, etc.

Posted by Ned Baker | Report as abusive
 

With this urban life which very much polluting and are more prone to various diseases.Our diet should contain such stuff which would meet up with these. This site is quite appreciable in this regard.

 

with all the pollution in the air even in the suburbs the body needs phytonutrients and antioxidants to help fight off the free radicals in the air that causes us to age quicker and for or metabolism to slow down.

 

The point is right, without a car you will be forced to travel a lot in your feet and loose weight and build muscle fast so less fat more muscle

Posted by Skinnyy | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •