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 third in the series, The Root talked to Mark Jenkins, a celebrity fitness trainer and author of The Jump Off: 60 Days to a Hip-Hop Hard Body, who has worked with everyone from D'Angelo and P. Diddy to Beyoncé and Tyler Perry.
The Root: According to the latest statistics, African Americans are one-and-a-half times as likely to be obese as whites. What's going on, from your perspective, with black people, obesity and overall health?
Mark Jenkins: You can start with slavery, when we were introduced to some of the foods that we still eat in excess today and that are so harmful to our health. Lack of activity definitely plays a role in obesity, too, and economics and class play into both. I’m in maybe 300 to 400 schools in the D.C. area with my "Fun, Fly & Fit" program [pdf], trying to make fitness fun for the kids. And so many of the schools are located in food deserts — places where you can't get a piece of fruit in a four- or five-mile radius.
TR: When it comes to African Americans and obesity, what is the biggest myth or misunderstanding?
MJ: That we don't care. I had a HarperCollins book came out in '04 when I trained Puffy [Combs] for the [New York City] marathon. I wanted graffiti art on the cover to make it more edgy. They told me, "You gotta use your advance for that because black people don't care about 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?
MJ: Write down what you eat every day — when you eat it, what it consists of, what your emotions are at the time — to see if you find a pattern. See if you're eating when you're upset, when you're happy, when you're bored. It's a different system for each person … but if you're conscious of what you're eating and why, you can start to address your diet.
You can find a way, but you have to be motivated. I got out of the Fort Greene projects in Brooklyn. I ate mackerel, frozen vegetables and brown rice for every meal. That might be an extreme, but still, because of that, it's very difficult for me to listen to excuses when it comes to healthy eating.
Finally, we have to get out of that mentality of only investing in things that are tangible. Black people have to invest in themselves, and not just in the superficial. Spend the money on the organic food, on the BPA-free containers and on whatever you need for a fitness regimen if you want to have a healthy life.
TR: What cultural and historical or psychological issues make the black community's relationship with weight and health unique?
MJ: There's fashion and beauty — black women don't want to mess up their hair, so [they] don't want to work out. It perpetually frustrates me. Any guy would much rather [see] a sexy body and have the hair a little messed up. I just don't get it. I battle back and forth with my female clients about it. I tell them to go natural. Your health is more important than your hair.
And the larger issue is, when you're in an oppressive society, you're going to do things to find comfort and make yourself feel better. And food is one of the biggest drugs on the street right now.
Next: Celebrity chef Aaron McCargo.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.