Slurping our way to obesity

Winnipeggers' love of Slurpees even got the attention of CNN once. (Click for source.)

Winnipeggers’ love of Slurpees even got the attention of CNN once. (Click for source.)

Sitting in a London coffee shop this past April, watching people going about their daily lives on the sidewalk — ahem, pavement — on the opposite side of the floor-to-ceiling window, I devoted a bit of time to trying to figure something out: Why is it that people on this side of the Atlantic look better, on the whole, than people back home?

Could it be the body language? Perhaps. In the world’s big cities, people tend to walk with a briskness and assertiveness that contrasts with the easygoing saunter that all but the busiest Winnipeggers maintain.

Could it be the clothes? That would certainly explain part of the difference. In a global business capital, people are expected to dress the part, which means strong demand for suits and ties. Sweatpants and the “gangster” look were somewhat less commonly seen. Yet even then, many wore clothes that were no more formal than what would be considered normal at St. Vital Mall or on Corydon Ave. on a Saturday night, aside from a propensity on the part of both men and women for wearing scarves even when the temperature is in the teens Celsius.

Then it occurred to me what the most important distinguishing factor might be: a lot of people here look healthy and fit — or, at least, relatively few look blatantly unhealthy and unfit.

The stats seem to bear this out: a 2011 study found that obesity rates in the London area ranged from a low of 14 percent of adults in Kensington and Chelsea to a high of 29 percent in the eastern suburbs of Barking and Dagenham.

In Manitoba, by comparison, a 2011 Manitoba Centre for Health Policy report on obesity, based on data collected between 2004 and 2008, concluded that 28 percent of the province’s adult males and 26 percent of adult females are obese, based on a body-mass index of 30 or higher. (Note that these figures exclude on-reserve populations.)

In Winnipeg, the province’s least obesity-ridden regional health authority area, 25 percent of adult males and 22 percent of adult females were estimated to be obese. A lot of weight would have to be lost to get the city down to Kensington and Chelsea’s enviably low levels.

Conversely, less than one-half of the city’s adults — 45 percent of women and 30 percent of men — were estimated to be of normal weight for their size.

Londoners and residents of the cities to the east and south in continental Europe, of course, have an advantage. Even if they have a sedentary job, life in that part of the world tends to be more active. Walking is part of the local way of life, and needs to be given the high cost of gasoline (estimated by numbeo.com as of Wednesday evening at $2.19 Cdn. per litre in London, compared to $1.20 in Winnipeg) and commuting (non-inner-city Londoners are charged a £10 per day congestion charge, or $16 Cdn., to drive into central London between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays).

They also don’t consider the heavy consumption of sugary drinks to be a matter of civic pride.

That is in sharp contrast to Winnipeg, as the Winnipeg Sun reported this week:

For the 14th consecutive year, Manitoba’s capital has been named Slurpee Capital of the World, 7-Eleven announced Monday. This year, Winnipeg will also receive the first-ever Slurpee Capital Trophy Cup.

Winnipeg won the cup for having the highest average number of Slurpee cups sold per store in a region. Calgary and Detroit were close behind, 7-Eleven says.

“Canada can no longer be complacent with this title as we have some serious competition globally,” Tim Donegan, vice president for 7-Eleven Canada, said in a media release. “But we have faith in Manitobans and their passion for all things Slurpee. It’s a title they’re extremely proud of and it really shows how Slurpee is truly a part of our culture — it’ll take a lot to beat that.”

It’s not clear how the “first-ever Slurpee Capital Trophy Cup” will differ from the “Slurpee Capital of the World trophy” accepted last year by city councilor Grant Nordman as Metro Winnipeg reported on July 9, 2012:

“This being the largest slurpee store in the world is really quite an accomplishment,” said Nordman, as he sipped on a Crush Lite Cream Soda Slurpee, which, he added, has 30% less calories and is a more healthy option.

Quite rightfully, that didn’t convince Twitter user @CoachV_HLF.

“This [is] horrible, we are the Diabetes capital of Canada and our city councillor is supporting the idea of slurpees being special,” “Coach” wrote in response to a CTV Winnipeg tweet promoting the 2012 event.

Such sugary beverages, including Councilor Nordman’s Crush Lite Cream Soda Slurpee, are indeed hardly beneficial for Winnipeggers’ health. A fact sheet published by the Harvard School of Public Health (c. 2012) noted that regular sugary drink consumption contributes to weight gain and higher risks of Type 2 diabetes, heart attacks or gout.

If you accept the premise that Winnipeggers would feel better about our city and ourselves if both the city and its citizenry took a little more pride in appearances — shrinking rather than expanding waistlines, and fewer discarded Slurpee cups strewn about, for example — then Slurpees are of little benefit to the city’s collective self-confidence.

Thus, Manitoba’s politicians would be well advised to stay away from the Slurpee bandwagon.

It could always be worse, however. Earlier this year, Mississippi legislators passed a law that, in the words of the Washington Post, “bars counties from passing and enacting laws that require calorie counts to be posted or caps the size of beverages or foods.” (This being the state with its own Brain Drain Commission, which is casting about trying to understand why the state’s best and brightest young people dream of leaving as soon as possible, and even candidly admits on its web site that the state is “perpetually behind the curve”.)

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Why neighbourhood grocery stores matter

Less than three months along, 2013 is not shaping up to be a good year for the neighbourhood grocery store in Winnipeg. First, the Extra Foods supermarket in the North End closed in January. Then the Food Fare at the corner of Arlington and Polson closed last week, followed today (Sunday) by the closure of the grocery store at The Bay Downtown.

The loss of inner-city grocery stores is hardly unique to Winnipeg. Hamilton went without a downtown supermarket for 11 years until the announcement that Nations Fresh Foods, an Ontario chain that specializes in catering to the ethnic market, will open a 55,000 square foot store in Jackson Square, a struggling downtown shopping centre. London, Ont., has been less fortunate, and continues to struggle along without a downtown supermarket.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research finds that it can be a challenge to open a grocery store in an urban area. The challenges include zoning and regulatory approval, availability of suitable lands, higher construction and operating costs, more difficult access for both motorists and company supply trucks, and competing political goals.

The disappearance of downtown and inner-city grocery stores is more than just an inconvenience to those having to walk, drive or take the bus to a more distant location. A 2009 study from the University of Utah found that having a grocery store within walking distance of home helps prevent obesity:

We find a strong association between neighborhood retail food options and BMI/obesity risk . .. The presence of at least one healthy grocery option in low income neighborhoods is also associated with a reduction in BMI/obesity risk relative to no food outlets. Finally, multiple food options within a neighborhood reduce BMI/obesity risk, relative to no food options…

Russ Lopez of the Boston University School of Public Health came to a similar conclusion in a 2007 journal article, finding that having a supermarket in the neighbourhood was more strongly associated with lower obesity risk than population density, median income or proximity to businesses.

While it is possible that walkable neighbourhoods are more likely to attract people who like to stay in shape to begin with, it’s also possible that having to walk home with one’s groceries leads people to be more finicky about what they buy, as observed by Calgary Herald (and ex-Winnipeg Sun) columnist Naomi Lakritz this past January:

Walkability severely limits your grocery list. No milk cartons (too heavy), glass jars (ditto) or a lot of cans (more ditto). No ice cream or other frozen food in warm weather.

In winter, of course, the ice cream will come in handy when you slip on an icy sidewalk. You can use it to cushion your fall. Kind of.

And if you set your ice cream pail on top of a snowbank at the curb, you can use it as an aid to propel yourself over the pile of snow. 

Lakritz’s facetiousness aside, obesity has real economic costs, as explained by the OECD in a 2010 report:

Obese people earn up to 18% less than people of normal weight. They need to take more days off, claim more disability benefits, and tend to be less productive on the job than people of normal weight. In northern European countries, obese people are up to three times more likely than others to receive a disability pension, and in the United States they are 76% more likely to suffer short-term disability. When production losses are added to health care costs, obesity accounts for over 1% of GDP in the United States.

Though the U.S. has one of the worst obesity problems in the OECD — one-third of Americans are considered obese, based on a body-mass index of 30 or more — Canada is closer to the U.S. end of the scale, with about one-quarter of Canadian adults being obese, than to a number of European and Asian countries where fewer than 15 percent are obese.

Ease of access to a grocery store is more than just a convenience issue. It is also a health and economic issue. Keep that in mind the next time you hear about a grocery store closing — or a new neighbourhood being planned without consideration being given to having a neighbourhood grocery store.

Overweight and obesity rates by country. (Source: OECD. Click for source.)

Overweight and obesity rates by country. (Source: OECD. Click for source.)