Can Where You Live Make You Fatter?

Is your bodyweight linked to where you live?
Is your bodyweight linked to where you live?

A new study, released at the end of January in the International Journal of Obesity[1], suggests that where we live could play a key role in whether or not we are overweight.  Unfortunately, there is a scientific side to it, it is not as simple as saying, “People who live close to a McDonald’s or Taco Bell are more likely to eat those foods on a regular basis, therefore are more likely to be overweight.”

While there probably is a study in existence somewhere – Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary Super Size Me does not count – that makes that point, the current paper, from the from Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, is linked to the altitude at which we live.  More specifically, it says that those who live at altitude are up to five times less likely to be overweight or obese in comparison to individuals living at ground level.


While the lead author of this particular study, Dr. Jameson Voss, said people shouldn’t look to relocate their homes in the name of losing weight, it certainly helps to fill in another part of the complex puzzle that is obesity.  This will unquestionably be useful as it continues to become a bigger problem – no pun intended – in almost every country around the world.

The study looked at a focus group of 400,000 individuals, and compared those living near sea level to those living at altitude in the state of Colorado.

“I was surprised by the magnitude of the effect…I wasn’t expecting such a consistent pattern as what was emerging,” Voss commented on the findings of the study.

Obesity in America

According to statistics from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) around 36% of Americans are classified as obese.  Various other groups, such as the American Heart Association[2], have shown that this number moves significantly higher if one takes into account the ‘overweight’ classification, too.

States in the West, including Colorado, consistently report the lowest obesity rates across the whole of the United States, where the southern states have historically been more obese.  While previous efforts to link financial circumstances and climactic elements to people’s weight have failed to uncover any solid connection, the elevation in the specific states mentioned is thought to directly impact on appetite, growth, and calorie burn.

A Relevant Study?

While there is no doubt that studies into obesity are important, this one begs the question if it was ever needed in the first place?  It is well-known that athletes spend time at altitude in order to boost their fitness before sporting events, or to aid their rehabilitation from serious injuries.  There is a reason why a piece of kit called an altitude tent is a ‘must have’ accessory for sports teams around the world, after all.

However, the link with athletes can be a misleading one, as we would be basing an opinion based on a very select group of people, who have already trained and conditioned their bodies to be in superior physical shape in comparison to ‘Joe Average.’


The impact of altitude on the size of the general population was commented on by Cynthia Beall, a leading voice in the field, and a professor of anthropology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.  Speaking about the physical changes experienced by those who travel to areas of higher altitude over a short period, Beall said, “That person would probably lose some weight during the course of a three week vacation…It would in fact be an interesting question whether that would sustain.”

As this was not a question asked by Voss and his team during their study, it is worth asking why this was not the case.  Surely, with a group of almost half a million people, there was the opportunity to explore that question?  If nothing else, it would have allowed Voss to be more definitive in terms of whether moving to a higher altitude area would help with weight loss.


One final problem that further clouds the results of the study is that various databases were used in collating the information, including data from telephone surveys, which are notoriously unreliable and often dismissed as credible sources in some fields.  It is also worth noting that the study states that the average body mass index (BMI) of those living at altitude was 24.2.  Above 24.9 is classed as overweight, so one could argue that, while living at altitude may reduce your chances of being overweight or obese, the numbers are not so great that you would give up life in the city and head into the Rocky Mountains by the end of the month.

For a more accurate and comprehensive set of data, we need to see a study that takes a similar number of people who live at both ground level and altitude, and swap where they live for an extended period.  While we could predict that those currently at ground level would lose weight, it would worth studying if the change of lifestyle and surroundings had an impact on those who normally reside at altitude.

Where you live could well make you fatter, or at least give you an excuse not to look after your weight; however, it is difficult to escape the fact that following a healthy diet and taking regular exercise will keep your body in check, whether you live in the Colorado hills or on the East Coast.

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