Obesity is more common in African Americans than in other ethnic groups. But when it comes to black people and weight, that’s where the agreement seem to ends. Is food the culprit? Is exercise the solution? Is there even a real problem to begin with, or should we be focusing on health — or even self-acceptance — rather than the number on the scale?
Against the backdrop of the first lady’s mission to slim down the nation’s kids, black celebs getting endorsements after shedding inches and a booming weight-loss industry, The Root will publish a series of interviews with medical professionals, activists and fitness enthusiasts that reveal the complexity of this issue and the range of approaches to it.
For the third in the series, The Root talked to Mark Jenkins, a celebrity fitness trainer and author of The Jump Off: 60 Days to a Hip-Hop Hard Body, who has worked with everyone from D’Angelo and P. Diddy to Beyoncé and Tyler Perry.
The Root: According to the latest statistics, African Americans are one-and-a-half times as likely to be obese as whites. What’s going on, from your perspective, with black people, obesity and overall health?
Mark Jenkins: You can start with slavery, when we were introduced to some of the foods that we still eat in excess today and that are so harmful to our health. Lack of activity definitely plays a role in obesity, too, and economics and class play into both. I’m in maybe 300 to 400 schools in the D.C. area with my “Fun, Fly & Fit” program [pdf], trying to make fitness fun for the kids. And so many of the schools are located in food deserts — places where you can’t get a piece of fruit in a four- or five-mile radius.
TR: When it comes to African Americans and obesity, what is the biggest myth or misunderstanding?
MJ: That we don’t care. I had a HarperCollins book came out in ’04 when I trained Puffy [Combs] for the [New York City] marathon. I wanted graffiti art on the cover to make it more edgy. They told me, “You gotta use your advance for that because black people don’t care about health.”
TR: If you could make just one suggestion for people to implement in their daily lives with respect to weight and health, what would it be?