(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 eighth in the series, The Root talked to Dr. Gayle Porter. A clinical psychologist by training, she's the author of Prime Time: The African-American Woman's Complete Guide to Midlife Health and Wellness and, along with Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston, she founded the Gaston & Porter Health Improvement Center. Operating in four states and Washington, D.C., its mission is to improve the health outcomes of African-American women and reduce health disparities. She talked to us about why she refuses to accept poverty as an excuse for African-American obesity, her problem with the food served in black churches and the difference a 30-minute daily walk can make.
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?
Gayle Porter: I want to underline that we are the only group that is more obese than we are overweight. We have larger rates of obesity and smaller rates of people being overweight. I think this is due to several factors. First, we are the most sedentary group. African-American women exercise less than any other group of women in the country. Second, it's our nutrition: We eat more foods, we consume more sugar in our foods and we're more apt to eat Southern-style cooking, which is often laden with fats and with sugar. We also eat a lot of fried foods. Finally, our levels of stress are high, so we do a lot of emotional eating. When you have that combination of high levels of fats, low levels of physical activity and diets that are full of sugar and fats, you're going to get obesity.
TR: When it comes to African Americans and obesity, what is the biggest myth or misunderstanding?
GP: There are several. One of the biggest ones is this: Traditionally we think that a major reason people are overweight or obese is because they don't have access to good food — because they're living in a food desert, for example. Now, that's true for some people, but what our data shows is that that even women who are living in areas with numerous choices in terms of stores where they can buy food still wind up buying unhealthy food. So it's a myth that the reason more of our people are obese it that they're poor and don’t have access.
We published a paper on this called "Paradoxes in Obesity in Mid-Life African American Women." It explains that our middle-class women are as obese as our poor women. We are the only group of women where money and education are not a protective factor against obesity. That is a major scary fact.
Another myth is that our stress levels are lower for our wealthier women. What we find is just the opposite — and we have data on over 2000 women in midlife. We've found that wealthier women do just as much emotional eating as women who have less money.
The same applies to physical activity. Our wealthier women are no more apt to exercise than our poor women.
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?
GP: It would probably be to walk or exercise in some way for half an hour a day. Exercising will cut your rates of stress and anxiety and depression in half. It will cut your risk of having a heart attack in half. If you lose 7 percent of your body weight, it cuts your risk of having diabetes by 65 percent. So, exercising — and I'm not talking about going to Curves or anything extravagant — just something as simple as walking. You can do that in the office.
Also cut portions. Even if you eat the same thing, reduce the amount that you eat. And my final piece of advice would be to manage stress better.
TR: What cultural, historical or psychological issues make the black community's relationship with weight and heath unique?
GP: There are historical issues related to what we were forced to eat. We ate chitlins because we were given the worst part of the pig, what was leftover, fried, highly caloric foods. And that affects what we eat today.
Dr. Gaston and I are always struck by the fact that one of the iconic movies in our communities is Soul Food. Every Sunday, they have a food orgy. Even after the grandmother dies of diabetes-related causes, everyone is still gathered around the table having a food orgy. Another thing is church. If you go into these church halls, what is being served? One of our members once said, "I love my church, but while my pastor is saving my soul in the sanctuary my body is being killed in the fellowship hall." And that's true.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.
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