On Blacks and Fat: Dr. Michelle Gourdine

This author says black women can embrace their curves as long as they know their health stats, too.

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Courtesy of Michelle Gourdine

(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 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 a 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 12th in the series, we spoke to Dr. Michelle Gourdine, the author of Reclaiming Our Health: A Guide to African American Wellness, a book designed to help African Americans reduce their disproportionate burden of obesity, high blood pressure, cancer and other leading causes of death. The board-certified physician, public health professional and professor talked to us about her criticism of a recent study suggesting exercise is less effective for black girls, why "all calories are not created equal" and how she suggests black people balance a healthy acceptance of different body types with the hard numbers. "We know we can be beautiful and we can be confident at any weight," she says, "but part of that self-acceptance and self-love means paying attention to your physical health."

Read the rest of the interviews in the series here, and check out the rest of The Root's 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?

Michelle Gourdine: What I think is going on with African Americans and obesity is the same thing that's going on with Americans in general. It has nothing to do with lack of willpower or genetic inferiority.

The same three factors that contribute to the obesity epidemic in the United States impact the African-American obesity crisis. First, we're a very sedentary society now. In generations past, our economy was agricultural. There was a lot of manual labor that was involved. Nowadays, we sit in traffic, in front of our computers and in meetings. Technology has taken away a lot of opportunities for us to move, which impacts our ability to burn calories and lose weight.

The second issue is the food we eat. We eat a lot more foods that come in cans and boxes, and a lot of processed foods. And it turns out that not all calories are created equal.

One hundred calories' worth of Twinkies is not equivalent to 100 calories' worth of broccoli. Twinkies not only have fewer of the vitamins and minerals and other nutrients that are beneficial to us, but they're also digested very quickly in the body, and they stimulate the production of insulin, which encourages the storage of fats, especially around our waists. So the overconsumption of those processed foods sets us up for obesity.

Third, our constant 24-7 lifestyle. I told my kids -- and they were shocked to hear this -- there used to be a time when midnight came, and if you were watching TV, you'd see the national anthem, and then the television would go off. They couldn't believe it, and that's a metaphor for our 24-7 lifestyle. We're always on, and that can be stressful. And stress has to do with gaining weight, because the stress hormones that circulate constantly in our bodies cause us to gain weight -- again, around the abdominal area.

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