Battle of the bulge

Portland State bills itself as “Oregon’s Largest University,” and with the current increase in obesity across the nation, that tagline may take on a new meaning. Oregon recently lost its status as the hungriest state, and it also ranks fairly high in self-reported cases of obesity. Portland is ahead of other cities in developing areas that encourage people to eat healthy and exercise, and PSU students have a wealth of opportunities to assist in the “battle of the bulge.”

Siobhan Maty, an assistant professor in the School of Community Health, researched the link between socioeconomic status and obesity on the East Coast.

Overall, Maty says the trend in treating obesity is moving from a focus on the individual to one of the environment and its influence on the person. “Our ‘built environment’ and our accessibility to open spaces has [sic] a huge influence on our physical and nutritional patterns,” she said. “There’s a known relationship between lower socioeconomic status and obesity. It has to do with social inequalities, not just eating at McDonald’s.”

While doing additional research in Detroit two years ago, Maty found that there wasn’t a single major grocery store in the city. There were several small “mom-and-pop” stores, but “people couldn’t get fresh fruits and vegetables anywhere. They got their groceries at the corner liquor store,” she said. Portland doesn’t have it nearly as bad, offering many markets with healthy choices.

Fast food restaurants are often placed in lower-income districts, which are also typically ethnic neighborhoods, Maty said. In North Carolina many youth noted that as teens, they had never had an opportunity to have a sit-down meal at a restaurant – all the local establishments were fast food.

Access to transportation and the level of security in a neighborhood also have an effect on obesity because they impact how much physical activity people get. “If a neighborhood’s not safe, people won’t go out walking,” Maty said. “If people don’t have access to public transportation, they become dependent on their cars, and they don’t exercise as much.”

The Oregon Health Division tracks data on weight and obesity at the state level, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) collects information nationwide. However, Maty pointed out that “the health division doesn’t go out there and measure people. It’s self-reported, so it’s really under-reported.”

Oregon eighth and eleventh-graders take a youth survey in addition to the adult analysis that is done in the state, and in the most recent study, eight percent of eighth-graders self-reported themselves as overweight.

“The interesting thing about the youth surveys is that it’s done by school district and it’s voluntary, so districts can choose not to participate,” Maty said. “Many of the more diverse districts didn’t agree to participate, so the data is under-reported and doesn’t represent the whole population. The true rate is much worse.”

Currently, PSU’s Institute on Aging is planning a study on the effect of the physical environment on elders, and several faculty members are doing research on obesity in conjunction with Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU). Maty said that present research on all levels is moving from what individuals can do to change their situation, to what effect changing their environment will have.

“We’ve found through research that changing individual behaviors doesn’t work,” Maty said. “People are now looking at how changing outside factors can enable individuals to begin, or continue physical education and healthy eating patterns.”

Maty says that only a healthy diet and exercise can prevent obesity. “Unfortunately, people don’t want to hear that – they just want some sort of pill they can take,” she said.

Portland’s inner city and downtown areas are unique in that people living there have access to lots of grocery stores and forms of public transportation. However, Maty says with all the development in places such as the Pearl District and Northeast Alberta Street, the poor are being forced further out into the suburbs, where again there may not be adequate access to groceries and buses. “It’s a good idea, but in the long run it’s still pushing people out into areas that aren’t as developed,” she said.

“It’s a lot easier to put the blame on the individual, but if we say it’s because of the way we developed the city, it recognizes that society has a part in the obesity epidemic,” Maty said.

Eat healthy foods in moderation – even on-campus

Julianne Ballard, a registered nurse with Student Health Services (SHS) here on campus, says obesity is identified as one of the risk factors doctors and nurses check for during annual exams. SHS also offers nutritional counseling to get students started on good eating and exercise habits. Most simple cases can be handled by an in-house nutritionist, but in extreme cases, such as if a student has developed diabetes, SHS can refer students to an outside specialist.

Ballard thinks that Portland and PSU’s campus have great opportunities for physical education. “At PSU students have lots of access to physical education and recreation that they ignore. There are great walks on-campus, too,” she said.

As far as PSU’s dining options, Ballard says that “there are certainly healthy options available, but they’re not always the choices that people make.” Many students skip breakfast and don’t eat until the afternoon or early evening, when they’re so hungry they gorge themselves. This in turn can lead to overeating and, in the long run, obesity.

Ballard recommends eating three moderately-sized meals each day, and she recommends that students plan ahead if they anticipate not being able to get away from class.

Between the four food groups, the food pyramid and diets such as the South Beach and Atkins diets, which one is the best? “There are fad diets all the time, but the bottom line is, if you take in fewer calories than you send out, you’ll lose weight,” she says. The food pyramid is actually designed with an active adult in mind, or someone who gets at least 30 minutes of vigorous exercise daily.

It is possible to eat healthy even without leaving the PSU cafeteria. Ballard recommends the oatmeal bar with a side of fresh fruit for breakfast and soups, salads and yogurt for lunch. She notes that many people are making healthy eating choices, such as bean burritos or baked potatoes, but they aren’t balanced with fruits and vegetables.

Students have a wide variety of healthy eating choices in the PSU cafeteria and downtown area, and a number of places to incorporate exercise into their daily routine. The School of Community Health ( offers credit classes each term, and if that’s not enough Student Intramurals ( and Campus Recreation ( offer organized sports opportunities as well. In addition, a plethora of student organizations, including the Outdoor Program, Snowboarding Club and Sailing Club, to name a few, offer students no valid excuse not to remain active. For more information on student groups, check out the Office of Student Affairs Web site (