This summer, the American Medical Association moved to add obesity to the national register of diseases. The decision, which ignored the protests of a special committee charged with studying the issue, would ostensibly lead to greater public education and providing treatment for the 90 million Americans—78 million adults and 12 million children—now considered obese.
A torrent of media coverage and blog battles yielded all manner of pro and con arguments. The AMA’s new agenda set off responses that generally tread familiar territory, bouncing around "lifestyle choices" and appearance discrimination and nanny state objectors.
Tired of the expected static responses, designer Lih Chen decided to turn obesity into pies, representing the issue in a more interactive way.
Using information from the CDC and the U.S. Census Bureau, Chen charted the rise—and rise—of obesity levels across the country in the last decade and a half. The figures represent the general BMI of each state split into three categories: "obese" (maroon in the graphic), "overweight" (orange), and "normal" (greyish blue).
Interestingly, obesity rates don’t vary as much as one might expect from state to state. Though note Chen’s pies have a baked-in design frustration: The size of each chart corresponds to population figures, so where New York’s and California’s statistics are immediately clear, those of North Dakota or Vermont are too puny to see. Levels are highest in the South and Southwest, where in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma the BMI breakdown seems evenly split. Figures shift slightly in the Midwest, while in New England the proportions are most skewed to "overweight" cases. Among the "healthiest" states are Maine, Colorado, Utah, and Massachusetts.
Chen, a member of the traveler and hostel comparison forum PackerShack, has made infographics for the site before. The obesity chart may not have the most direct connection with traveling, but Chen addresses that in a blog entry. He writes about trips to Thailand, where he found Western tourists choosing Whoppers over the exquisite—and worlds less fattening—fresh, local food.
Sure, there are flaws in Chen’s graphics, starting with those pie charts so small they’re difficult or impossible to read. And the use of BMI as the default metric for measuring weight and health is reductionist, to say the least. But that part, of course, is not the designer’s fault; it’s indicative of the highly problematic ways obesity is viewed by policy makers and the public. Time will tell if the AMA’s ruling will make headway into changing that.