On Blacks and Fat: Hip-Hop H.E.A.L.S.

We spoke to Dr. Olajide Williams, who uses rap music to combat obesity among African Americans.

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Courtesy of Columbia University

(The Root) -- 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 seems to end. 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 ninth in the series, The Root talked to Dr. Olajide Williams, the founder of Hip Hop Public Health and its Hip Hop H.E.A.L.S. (Healthy Eating and Living in Schools) program, which has been presented to more than 25,000 New York City students over the last seven years. An academic neurologist at New York-Presbyterian-Columbia University Medical Center, Williams works to empower African-American and Latino school children with the behavioral skills necessary to navigate the food environment in their homes and communities. The H.E.A.L.S program uses an interactive, multimedia format that includes animation and hip-hop music developed by Artie Green and performed by rap vets such as Doug E. Fresh and Chuck D of Public Enemy.

The doctor talked about why he considers hunger and obesity to be two sides of the same coin and why the lack of personal discipline is an oversimplified explanation for poor health outcomes among African Americans.

Read the rest of the interviews in the series here, and check out The Root's other obesity coverage here.

The Root: According to the latest statistics, African Americans are 1.5 times as likely as whites to be obese. What's going on, from your perspective, with black people, obesity and overall health?

Olajide Williams: It's a perfect storm of multiple factors working together to drive the epidemic overboard. If you go to an urban community, for example, there are many challenges. One is economics -- the cost of healthy food. We know that healthy foods cost more than unhealthy foods. And fruits and vegetables cost more than a dollar meal that you can get from the fast-food restaurant.

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We know access is an important barrier as well. Not only is cost prohibitive, but access to these healthy foods is also prohibitive in a lot of black communities. There are areas that we refer to as food deserts, for example, where among the bodegas and fast-food restaurants, you might be lucky to find one store that sells fruits and vegetables. So they have to work harder in these communities to find healthier foods that are also more expensive.

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