(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 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 sixth in the series, The Root talked to chef Aaron McCargo Jr. The winner of the Food Network's The Next Food Network Star and host of Big Daddy's House, he's a participant in Michelle Obama's Chefs Move to Schools initiative, a program created by the first lady to battle childhood obesity in America.
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?
Aaron McCargo Jr.: It has to do with upbringing as well as availability of healthy food. It's the way we were raised. The things that we're used to eating are always the things that were either high in sodium, high in fat or high in sugar.
I try to be aware of that in my own cooking. For example, I remember, growing up, my mom using lard to fry chicken in Crisco, which gave you the crispiest chicken. But until I gained knowledge of cooking, I didn't know that while cooking in canola oil was totally different, I could still get similar results. Now I'm not a lard user; I don't use a lot of sugar. You can change a lot of things in a recipe and still get great-tasting food.
Also, you hear a lot about the sustainable farmer, having more green and more organic foods at the table, etc., but those things aren't always realistic in the city. Even prior to the economy taking a dive, these were just not things many of us could afford to put on our tables.
You couldn't go where I'm from in Camden, N.J., and go buy a bucket of peaches every day or a basket of tomatoes. I try to keep it real and say that's not happening in the hood. I hear a lot of outsiders say, "If it's really important to you, you'll make a way." But you know what? If I've got four or five kids, a part-time job, and I'm in school, I don't have time to go to the suburbs or a farm and buy these things.
TR: When it comes to African Americans and obesity, what is the biggest myth or misunderstanding?
AM: The biggest myth is that they're lazy and they don't want better. In reality, when we talk about starting with our children, recreational programs [have been taken away] because there's no funding. So during summer time, for example, our kids have nothing to do but sit around and suck on Popsicles, which are high in sugar; eat chips, which are high in salt or fat; or go to sleep. If the programs were there, they'd be more active. Healthiness is a habit that needs to be taught.
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?
AM: Walk, just walk. If you've got a car, park your car the furthest from where you've gotta go and just walk to wherever it is. I am an advocate for walking, and I'm not the healthiest dude, so I can understand people wanting to park closer to the door. But if we could just walk, it would help a lot. And the other thing could be to stretch.
Finally, just put one vegetable on the table a day. Just one green vegetable a day. I'm all cool with you getting frozen veggies — I'm not saying you'll have the chance to get them fresh. Whether it's a salad, some broccoli or some string beans, put a green vegetable on the table every day.
TR: What cultural, historical or psychological issues make the black community's relationship with weight and heath unique?
AM: It started way back; you can even go back as far as slavery days. It's just been transmitted to where we are today, when you think about the soul food perspective, the things we've always indulged in: the fried chicken, the scrapple, the bacon, the chitterlings and things of that nature. The cheaper parts of meat that we could afford that let us provide for our families — the sweet potato pies, the cakes and the things high in sugar. Those were things that you took from ingredients that were affordable, that you could use to feed your family. Salt, which was originally used to cure foods and make them last longer, is still used as the number one flavor enhancer in our foods.
If you compare the beginning of the 21st century to where we are now, there are still some of the same habits. The generation today isn't eating scrapple and chitterlings and things of that nature, but we're now taking these same habits and getting them from fast food. We're still putting the same things in our bodies that caused us to be overweight and caused us to have these deficiencies in our health. It's just a hard thing to stop.
It's also what's put in our neighborhoods. When I weight out the options of going to Checkers or McDonald's, getting a dollar burger or two pies for a dollar, as opposed to taking $5 to the supermarket and stressing about "How am I gonna make this happen?" that's the biggest obstacle. Fast food is a reality, and many of us just don't have the resources we need to eat better and to do better.
Next: Fat-acceptance advocate and blogger Shannon Barbour.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.