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 fifth in the series, The Root talked to Danielle Moodie-Mills, the National Wildlife Federation's senior manager of environmental-education campaigns, who recently wrote an essay for this site on connecting children to nature for the benefit of their health and well-being. She says the epidemic behind the obesity crisis is that people simply aren't taking their kids outside anymore.
The Root: According to the latest statistics, African Americans are 1.5 times as likely to be obese as whites. What's going on, from your perspective, with black people, obesity and overall health?
Danielle Moodie-Mills: About 80 percent of our population lives in urban areas right now, and that's probably increasing. And we know generally that in urban areas, a lot of things happen that may preclude people from going outside. There may not be a park near their house or a natural green space, for example.
There is a recent study that came out that says that school is cutting recess across the board. With the advent of the No Child Left Behind policy in 2001 and the subsequent amendments to that, we got into the mentality of teaching to the test, and saying teachers needed more time to do that. Where is that time going to come from? It's going to come from P.E. and recess.
Unfortunately, the lower-performing schools that are being targeted by these cuts are also high-racial-minority schools. So those students are the ones [who are] less likely to get outside and get exercise. That to me sounds like prison, and that's what we're asking 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds and 9-year-olds to do. Don't we believe the outdoors is for everyone?
TR: When it comes to African Americans and obesity, what is the biggest myth or misunderstanding?
And then there are all of these stereotypes that we put on people who are overweight, especially African Americans who are overweight. It's like, "Oh, I'm big and beautiful and sexy," when you're talking about adults, and when you're talking about kids, it's, "Oh, they're just big-boned." I've heard that, I read that. And, it's like, did they seriously just put that in print? Because it just feeds into an unhealthy stereotype — a stereotype, frankly, that's killing us as a community.
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?
DMM: It would be to get outdoors and to get moving. The first lady has talked about "Let's move," even if moving just means getting up during a commercial to start moving or just going for a walk outside. Because you can't tell a sedentary person, "Let's go for a hike" or "Let's go for a 5K run." That's the quickest way to want to burn somebody out. Start with, "Let's go out for a walk around the block."
And a part of getting people in touch with their health is recognizing the importance of the outdoors and realizing how inexpensive it is. People are spending a lot of money on health care needs, on diabetes medication, on heart medication. We're seeing kids younger and younger developing adolescent diabetes.
We can be outside; we can grow a little tomato in a pot, if we don't have access to a garden. It's about getting everybody in touch with all five of their senses and the environment that nature provides, and encouraging people to get out there and move when they're out there. It's about taking little steps. And you know what? Gym memberships: really expensive. Medication: really expensive. The outdoors: free. Walking: free.
Finally, kids who are so used to being entertained with a screen need to be reintroduced to how to play. We have a campaign called "Be Out There," which essentially teaches parents how to get their kids outdoors.
TR: What cultural and historical or psychological issues make the black community's relationship with weight and health unique?
DMM: We've had unique relationships with the medical profession. Historically, we have not trusted medical professionals, and this goes back to Tuskegee and testing that was done without our knowledge. And so you kind of learn to not go, until something is truly, truly wrong with you. And at that stage, sometimes it's too late.
But there are small steps that can be made — because we are an outdoor people. Our culture has kind of been based in being in the outdoors and enjoying one another … we just need to get back to that. Get back to that space when we're fishing and gardening, and hanging out and really enjoying each other and nature the way that we used to, and not be held up in our homes anymore.
Next: Celebrity chef Aaron McCargo.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.