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 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 second in the series, The Root talked to Erika Nicole Kendall, who blogs for more than 150,000 followers about the lessons learned while dropping 160 pounds, at a Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss.
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?
Erika Nicole Kendall: The problem exists at the intersection of access, monetary availability and knowledge. I think to explain that, all you have to do is go into an inner-city environment, where the majority of blacks live. You're not going to find Whole Foods or stores remotely similar to Whole Foods. For example, Harlem had to fight to get one grocery store because nobody believed it was worth going there — because of the idea that nobody eats vegetables and fruit in the hood. And often, the produce that is there is of poor quality — onions rotting on the inside, peaches that are turning brown — and it only takes one time eating a piece of rotten fruit to get turned off.
Not to mention, money is tight for many people. Many of my readers [at A Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss] don't know how to cook, and a lot of them don't have a taste for vegetables. A lot of people also will tell me they don't know how to operate without processed foods. And if you don't have the money, it's difficult to explore that and try to cultivate that taste.
TR: When it comes to African Americans and obesity, what is the biggest myth or misunderstanding?
ENK: That we are all completely comfortable with it. That we're completely fine with our health. Remember that study that was in the Washington Post about black women being accepting of being overweight? But it's not that we're fine being overweight or obese; it's that we're fine with our bodies not looking the way that society says they should. Our understanding of beauty allows for a space to be curvy, a space to be other than extremely thin. But we also have to make sure we take on the added task of ensuring that in addition to accepting the way we look, we're also focusing on our health.
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?
ENK: If I had to make one suggestion, it would be to get away from the processed foods. The additional preservatives, the additional sugar, the poor-quality meats, the genetically modified food. That's the most important suggestion.
TR: What cultural, historical or psychological issues make the black community's relationship with weight and health unique?
ENK: That's a really good question. We originally had it right, we originally were very pro vegetable, pro fruit … we had a thousand different ways to cook one vegetable or fruit. We created the cobbler, we were pro jarring and canning, we were making jams and preserves. We used everything, we ate healthfully and we did it on a shoestring budget. Now we don't want to do all that because that makes us feel like we're reliving slave times or it makes us uncomfortable.
But assimilation be dammed — hypertension was not the problem back then that it is today. There are so many health issues the black community didn't have to deal with back then. But now, instead of doing what we know worked in the past, we listen to people who have an agenda, like people in the food industry. But look at your great grandmother — I bet she was healthy. Maybe not our grandmothers, but our great grandmothers were. We need to get back to eating the way they did.
Next: Celebrity trainer Mark Jenkins.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.