The urban diet

By Felix Salmon
September 27, 2009
James Fallows has a correspondent who drives a lot, and is overweight, and who writes:

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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?

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