(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 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 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 13th in our series, we spoke to Pete Thomas, who, in 2005, won $100,000 on NBC's The Biggest Loser by losing 185 pounds in just nine months — most of it at home, after being voted off.
As a result of his mother's serious mental illness, Thomas says he was often left alone for weeks at a time as a child, finding food wherever he could, and, when he was fed, it was "out of boxes." His weight eventually climbed to 416 pounds.
He says the 10-week "Lose It Fast, Lose It Forever" weight-loss plan that's outlined in his newly released book of the same title explains what he understands now that he didn't realize then. We spoke to him about the practical tips he offers readers, why he refuses to accept that anyone is "big-boned" and how, when it comes to communicating an anti-obesity message to the black community, it won't work to "keep saying the same dumb thing over and over."
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?
Pete Thomas: One of the dynamics is that we as an African-American community tend to celebrate around food. When I came back from the show, I had people inviting me over to their gatherings, and then I started noticing, "Wow, they really don't have any healthy options." There was just all kinds of junk, and I'd say, "You don't have anything I eat — you don't have any salads, no diet pop."
And this is a tip on how to change the culture even within our own families: The next time I went, it was the same thing, and I turned to leave. I said, "If you don't have anything I can eat, there's no reason for me to be here." The next time, they said, "We've got diet pop, we've got salad with low-calorie dressing, we've got some baked chicken instead of just fried." So that's one way I was able to start changing the environment right in my own community.
TR: When it comes to African Americans and obesity, what is the biggest myth or misunderstanding?
PT: There are a couple of things in the African-American community. One is, "I'm big-boned." No, you're not big-boned; your bone structure is the same as everyone else's. You're not big-boned; you just have a whole lot of padding that you put on there.
The other thing we tend to do is to say, "I'm not fat, I'm healthy." And what we don't realize is that type of healthy is what you want chickens that are fed a whole bunch of steroids to be. Nice, big, fat and plump. You're ready for the slaughter! That's a problem.
And the fact is, people who age well are smaller sized. You don't see anyone 80 years old who is 400 pounds. There are no obese people in nursing homes.
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?
PT: The one tip every day, which is one of the things I have in the book, is that you need to come to understand your personal daily fuel goal. That's the number or amount of calories your body needs per day. Once you have an understanding of that, you understand from there that any extra fuel you get, your body stores.
PT: We have come to accept obesity as somewhat sexy. If you look at rap videos, and whatever these magazines are — King, XXL, whatever — basically, you have young girls who are obese. And we have highlighted them and featured them as being some type of sex symbol. So young girls look at that, and they have no consciousness of the relationship between weight and health.
There's probably also an economic dynamic as well. In our community, there are certain food deserts where you can't find healthy options. It was a big deal here in Michigan when Whole Foods decided that they were going to build a facility in one of those areas.
And the [sometimes generic] messaging that comes from the government and certain entities is just really, really poor. Anytime someone says the same thing over and over again and you're not getting results, that's a problem with the person presenting the information.
There's a study out of Baltimore where they took a sign and put it next to a pop machine, saying how many miles you would need to run to burn off a can of pop. And pop sales went down. That's a different message than what you would normally hear about the number of calories. By changing the messaging to address that audience, they were able to change the results there.
[The lesson for anti-obesity advocates:] Don't keep saying the same dumb thing over and over and expect communities to change. Say it differently based on what the community is … I think if you hire an African-American advertising agency to explore — or if you had a spokesperson like me who knows my community and can speak to how it operates — [results] would be different. [An ad about healthy living] needs to be culturally appropriate. Car companies gear their messages to different communities. The same thing should happen with health and nutrition.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.