March 30, 2011 10:23:00 AM
FLORENCE, Ala. -- Americans are getting fatter, and the diets that have led to ever-expanding waistlines are only getting worse, according to a new report that ranks Mississippi first and Alabama second for the worst eating habits in the United States.
Mississippi and Alabama are among the top consumers in the nation, for instance, when it comes to soft drinks. Mississippians buy 82 gallons of soft drinks per person each year, and in Alabama, the number is 77 gallons. Alabama residents also consume $649 per person annually in fast food, while Mississippians eat $588 per person.
The authors of the study say this is cause for concern, especially when there are definite links between obesity and diabetes, coronary artery disease, strokes and some forms of cancer.
"The levels of healthy eating defined (in the study) varies widely from state to state," said Charles B. Stockdale, the lead author of the study, "10 States with the Deadliest Eating Habits." "That means there is not likely to be any one set of solutions created and funded at the federal level to solve the problem. Congress cannot mandate how many McDonald''s can be built within any hundred mile square area, or, if it could, McDonald''s would object."
The authors gathered federal data for the report, including income, access to healthy food sources, the ability to pay for healthy food, the concentration of fast food outlets and the consumption of fruits, vegetables, sugar, fat and soft drinks.
The battle for good nutrition is not only waged at home but in the public school system as well.
Angie Datuin, director of the Child Nutrition Program for Colbert County, Ala., Schools, said it''s difficult, if not impossible, to change the eating habits of children when the diet isn''t also reinforced at home.
"It''s going to take a shift in culture in the way we think about food to change this," she said. "Understanding the depth of the situation and deciding that good health is worth it and that you''re going to do something about it is a choice each person has to make. But, when it comes right down to it, we''ve done this to ourselves."
"This," as Datuin refers to it, is the cycle of bad health that has now resulted from a generation of poor eating habits. Already, Alabama has been ranked among the top five states in the nation for rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
She said she remembers a time when the kitchen garden provided the bulk of vegetables and fruits a family consumed, and red meat consumption was often limited to one or two days a week.
"These are the foods I grew up on, but it''s changed, and now we are in a culture of convenience," Datuin said. "It''s cheaper, easier and more convenient to go through the fast food line for dinner or grab a Coke from a vending machine, but that''s exactly what''s killing us."
Families are feeling the squeeze when it comes to better nutrition for healthier lives.
Chad and Leigh Ragan, of Florence, said it''s a challenge to feed their four children nutritious foods on a budget that''s now being strained by rising gas prices.
"We try to limit the older boys to one soda and one sweet snack a day, and the little ones to one sweet snack, but that doesn''t always work," Leigh Ragan said. "Then there are the days we''re out running errands, and we don''t have time to come home and make a meal."
When that happens, she said meals can consist of fast food, including fried chicken nuggets or cheeseburgers.
Still, Chad Ragan, who is a cook, said having more organic and healthier options available would be a best-case scenario for him, if those foods were also more affordable to feed a family of six.
"They''re so much more expensive," he said. "So, even though we don''t like it, we''ve made Thursday night pizza night because it''s cheaper and easier to buy pizza for all six of us than it is to try to cook something the kids might not eat."
For the Ragans, better nutrition comes in convenient bursts, including sliced apples or carrots for snacks, low-fat milk and the addition of a multivitamin to the kids'' diets.
Datuin said those small steps can make a big difference in the long run.
"I have to believe we''re making strides to change these eating habits," she said. "That''s all we can do because, ultimately, it''s about making better choices, choosing grilled chicken instead of a burger, and apples instead of fries. We are making headway, but it''s a very slow process, and it''s going to take time."