The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Deirdre Macken macken.deirdre@

If you want to know how Alice in Won­der­land felt when she popped down the rab­bit hole, visit an in­ner-city sub­urb on a Sun­day and then go to a coun­try town the next day. In the in­ner city, it’s like you’ve had the Eat Me cake. The place is pop­u­lated with young so­phis­ti­cates who are all so lithe, vis­i­tors feel huge in com­par­i­son. In­deed, they are huge in com­par­i­son. Then in the coun­try town the next day, it’s like you’ve drunk from the Drink Me bot­tle. Ev­ery­one looks so big and solid you feel pe­tite. In fact, you are slim in com­par­i­son.

For some­one who is def­i­nitely not thin but also not that fat, it’s a mind ben­der to go from feel­ing over­sized to un­der­sized in the space of 24 hours. But it’s no il­lu­sion. On the at­las of body sizes, that in­ner-city sub­urb is the skinny cap­i­tal of the coun­try, with only four out of 10 peo­ple boast­ing a muf­fin top. In the coun­try town al­most seven out of 10 wear larger sizes.

This spread of ge­o­graphic obe­sity has in­trigued health of­fi­cials since the data was first col­lated and, later, put on to a dig­i­tal at­las. Some of the rea­sons are ob­vi­ous and some can only be hinted at — and here’s an early hint. In the in­ner-city sub­urb, I de­cided to or­der a skinny latte and in the coun­try town, I or­dered cake.

The ob­vi­ous rea­sons for obe­sity inequity are all about de­mo­graph­ics. Health is strongly as­so­ci­ated with wealth, and in­ner-city sub­urbs are wealthy post­codes pop­u­lated by young pro­fes­sion­als, cre­ative work­ers and mid­dle-aged bankers who bike to work. And on a Sun­day, when work­ers are at home, there seems to be a lot of them jog­ging by.

The fur­ther you get from the city core, the lower the in­comes. The res­i­dents of coun­try towns are older and poorer, less re­sourced, less en­dowed with leisure op­por­tu­ni­ties, and less able to walk or cy­cle to work or even the shops.

Obe­so­genic en­vi­ron­ment is how some ex­perts de­scribe the many fac­tors that in­flu­ence whether peo­ple in an area will be over­weight. But one of the least recog­nised parts of the equa­tion is how you feel about your weight when you look around the place. That is, if you are sur­rounded by peo­ple who are thin­ner than you, you will feel fat, and you’ll prob­a­bly vow to do some­thing about it. You might de­cide to lose weight, join them jog­ging or, at the very least, de­cide to have a skinny latte for break­fast and pass on the av­o­cado smash.

If, on the other hand, ev­ery­one seems fat­ter than you, you’ll feel a lit­tle smug and de­cide there’s no rea­son to refuse the vanilla slice in the cafe. In both cases, you’ll be on your way to fit­ting into the re­spec­tive places.

So­cial con­ta­gion is a new sci­en­tific stream but it’s get­ting pow­er­ful data about how our friend­ship groups af­fect the way we eat, drink and ex­er­cise. Peer group pres­sure isn’t just a school­yard haz­ard, it fol­lows us through life.

In short, our friends, work col­leagues and neigh­bours have a big in­flu­ence on what we con­sider to be nor­mal be­hav­iour. So­cial norms af­fect not just the sorts of foods we eat but the quan­ti­ties we con­sume. They in­flu­ence whether we smoke, drink too much, ex­er­cise too lit­tle and even whether we swear too lib­er­ally. As so­cial an­i­mals, we want to fit in, even if the price of en­try is an un­healthy life.

So, those whose first re­ac­tion to feel­ing thin walk­ing around a coun­try town is to move to that town so you feel thin all the time, think again. You’ll end up join­ing them in more ways than one. And those who want to tackle the muf­fin top will do bet­ter to walk around the in­ner sub­urbs feel­ing bloated and out of place. You’ll join them, but you might have to start jog­ging around the streets with them to do so.

It sounds aw­ful but you should choose your friends care­fully if you want to live healthily. And, equally tough, you should choose the place you call home just as care­fully. But if you’re fond of your hearty friends or you love the place you’re in, there is an­other pos­si­bil­ity. Get all your friends, neigh­bours and work col­leagues to­gether and change your habits. You are more than what you eat. You are what your friends eat. And how you end up de­pends on whether your friends are more likely to sug­gest that you Drink Me or Eat Me.

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