llobesity

(First of three parts.)

The stats are embarrassing: African-American women are the most overweight people in the United States. Here are the numbers: 78 percent of us weigh too much, and 51 percent of that group is obese. That means four out of five us are overweight – meaning a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9 – and two of those four are obese (BMI of 30 or more).

There’s been some debate about the use of BMI for African Americans, but there’s no disputing the fact the overwhelming majority of black women are freakin’ huge.

No, the answer is not as simple as eating too much and moving too little, so don’t even go there. Yes, we’re eating too much of the wrong stuff, but the real question is, What’s eating African-American women?

font-size: small;">I know what my problem is, and if you’ve been with me from February 8, you know as well. If not, here’s the short version: childhood sexual abuse, lifelong weight/self-esteem issues, bulimia, anxiety, depression, now on anti-depressants, psychologist, joined a gym, now losing weight, life is good and getting better, etc.

I strongly believe the obesity issue is emotionally based, because being a black woman in America today can be damned hard, and we dare not show any weakness. So we end up swallowing stress with every forkful, choking on worry with every sip. And it’s killing us: The mortality rates for black women are higher than any other racial/ethnic group for nearly every major cause of death including heart disease, lung cancer, breast cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.

Folks, it ain’t all because of Haagen-Dazs.

The first stop on my journey for answers was the mother of one of my daughter’s friends, who I’d heard lost a great deal of weight in a short period of time, I just didn’t know how much. So we met to chat Saturday night at a Barnes & Noble here in Raleigh. I had a small raspberry smoothie. She had an iced caramel coffee and a thick slice of key-lime cheesecake. Seriously.

Alhaja Affinnih is 36 years old and has lost 150 pounds since October 2008. She weighed 389 pounds when she started, but had no blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes problems. Yet. Her doctor said she was a ticking time bomb, and Alhaja had reason to be gravely concerned: Her mother lost both legs and eventually died of complications due to diabetes. Alhaja’s doctor said, “You don’t want to get to the point where you’re losing weight to save your life.”

Like many, Alhaja had tried several plans, including Weight Watchers, L.A. Weight Loss and Herbalife. She looked into lap-band and gastric bypass surgery, but was put off by all the pills and medication she’d have to take afterward, and the limited way of eating for the rest of her life. “I decided I could lose the weight on my own,” she says.

She began by buying healthier food. The Verizon software engineer and project manager says she wanted to continue to eat whatever she wanted, and was able to do so by focusing on portion control and exercise. The first six months, she didn’t go to the gym at all. Her knees hurt from bearing all her weight, so she did her aerobics while lying on her back at home, and crunches while sitting up in chairs. After losing 40 pounds, she joined a gym in February ’09. By September she was down 85 pounds, and has lost an additional 65 since then.

She is successful, she says, because she learned to put herself first. All black women, she says, need to adopt “an airline mentality: Put the (oxygen) mask on yourself first. We are the caregivers. We think it’s our job to take care of everyone else. We need to be accountable to ourselves.”

Alhaja learned how to do that the hard way. At age 14, she was already 242 pounds. At age 19, she had four children to take care of – two of her own, and her drug-addicted sister’s two children. Three years later, she gave birth to her third, and when that child was only 2 weeks old, Alhaja went back to school to finish her education. We could write an entire book about Alhaja’s life, but let’s just sum up a few key, character highlights: with five kids in her care, she earned a bachelor’s degree in commerce with a concentration in management information science from the University of Virginia’s prestigious McIntire School of Commerce.

Still, with ongoing troubles with her sister, a sick mother and dealing with the corporate world, Alhaja continued to gain and gain. Dinner was take-out meals and Hamburger Helper – anything cheap and fast. She was making ends meet and moving up the corporate ladder, but the bottom fell out of her world in 2004. Her mother had died. That’s when Alhaja picked up the most weight, literally and figuratively. Never mind she could soon be diabetic herself. Never mind her knees weakening with each pound. Alhaja had a house full of mouths to feed, all by herself. In 2007, her doctor told her she needed to lose weight. She promised she would, then gained 10 more pounds.

It was her doctor’s dire 2008 warning that finally got to her: You don’t want to get to the point where you’re losing weight to save your life. And Alhaja didn’t waste time talking about losing weight and changing the way she was eating. She just . . . did it.

Today, she avoids the scale. She judges how she’s doing by the fit of her clothes, and exercises daily by alternating gym days with walking a few miles in the morning and a few more in the evening. It’s “her” time, and she enjoys being alone with her thoughts. She doesn’t have a specific weight-loss goal, and doesn’t believe black women should, either. “It’s all about what feels good for you.”

Alhaja is looking forward to a trip to Kings Island amusement park in Ohio next month. She’ll be there to support her daughter, who’ll be competing in an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball tournament, but she’s also looking forward to fitting into a roller-coaster seat for the first time in 20 years.

So what’s eating Alhaja? Nothing anymore. And girlfriend truly enjoyed that key-lime cheesecake.

Tomorrow: Why is it so hard for African-American women to ask for help?