(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 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 11th in the series, we spoke to Venus Williams. The tennis superstar is gearing up to compete in the London Olympics, but before buckling down for the games, she stopped in Washington, D.C., for an appearance involving two of her lesser-known priorities: business and health advocacy. A Jamba Juice franchise owner, she's also an ambassador for the company's Team Up for a Healthy America campaign, which is designed to draw attention to the nation's obesity epidemic.
"It's so important to have good roots in healthy eating," she told The Root. "And not everyone learns that in the beginning."
The lifelong healthy eater and recent convert to veganism talked to The Root about her balanced, lifestyle-based approach to wellness; how a health scare inspired her conversion to veganism; and what she's doing to make sure all American kids get the same early introduction to healthy eating that she did.
The Root: When it comes to African Americans and obesity, what is the biggest myth or misunderstanding?
Venus Williams: When it comes to people and obesity generally, it's just important to be balanced. It's important to be active, but also to take in the right things that are healthy for your body. It's about being healthy, because obesity does lead to health problems. So it's not just about how you look.
For example, I chose to be a vegan because I had some health problems, so I had to change my lifestyle. It definitely has helped me. I only started last year, so there's still some stuff I'm trying to purge, but it's a lifestyle thing.
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?
VW: What works for me is [a] key word: "lifestyle." You don't have to be perfect and walk the walk every day, but you have to stay active, and you have to make the right food choices most of the time. As long as you do that, it's OK to take some days off and not be active, or eat something that's not ideal.
For me, the right food choices mean a lot of vegetables and fruit and less processed food. We also have to be really conscious about how much sugar we're taking in. You have to take the time to educate yourself.
TR: Are there any other cultural, historical or psychological issues that you think make the black community's relationship with weight and health unique?
VW: I know how I grew up. My mom had us eating vegetables. If we wanted a snack, we went to the refrigerator and got a carrot. It's so important to have good roots in healthy eating, and not everyone learns that in the beginning. And if you don't, it's hard to make changes. I think the real key in our community is to try to educate young people about eating healthy.
We need programs at the grassroots level and in the schools. It's all about keeping our country healthy, and that's important because that's our future. That's why I'm involved in a student lunch program to help students get the right amount of fruits and vegetables throughout the day.
TR: According to the latest statistics, African Americans are 1.5 times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be obese. What's going on, from your perspective, with black people, obesity and overall health?
VW: I'm not an expert on the statistics, but I can say that [I've promoted] a healthy, active lifestyle my whole life, across the board, for all people. I think that's an important part of avoiding obesity for any group. Jamba Juice is all about a healthy lifestyle, and of course, that's so important to me, so my work with them has been amazing. It reflects my lifestyle.
TR: What else are you working on? What's next for you?
VW: For me it's all about the Olympics right now. For now, that's my focus, and that's it.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.