No Southern comfort in obesity
For many blacks in the South, healthy living is at odds with the culture
By David Person
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. “” We Southerners are proud of our cuisine, but we could do without the distinction of once again being the most obese region in the country.
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded what many Americans have seen, and known, for years: Obesity is a major problem in the USA, but especially in the South. And African Americans in the South (like me) are the group with the highest obesity rates.
Alabama native Ronald Wyatt, a doctor of internal medicine and a fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement at Cambridge, Mass., summed up the study this way: For every 100 obese whites in the South, there are 151 obese blacks.
“As a people, we have an obesity problem,” Wyatt said recently on my radio show.
The study concluded that 37% of Southern blacks are obese, but in the great state of Alabama where I live and in Mississippi, it’s a touch higher: 40%.
Liping Pan, the epidemiologist who’s the lead author of the study, believes that blacks and Hispanics “” who have the second-highest obesity rates “” have a few things in common that feed unhealthy lifestyles. Neither group has adequate access to safe places, such as gyms or health clubs, that promote physical activity. Pan also says healthy food choices are often out of the reach of these folks.And then there’s perception and the social pressures that do or don’t come with weight gain.
“Black and Hispanic women are more accepting of their own body size than white women,” Pan said in an article published by HealthDay News. “They are happy with their weight and less likely to try to lose weight.”
The 4,000 calorie meal
Even though I know plenty of black women who complain about their weight, the folks who have grooved to Sista Big Bones by neo-soul singer Anthony Hamilton might see the problem here. Or the fans of the Tyler Perry comedies House of Payne and Meet the Browns on TBS would understand what pop culture is saying about obesity. Both shows, which are about the escapades of blended black families, have been bona fide ratings successes. And on both, the male and female lead characters are undeniably overweight.
No matter how entertaining, the cementing of these stereotypes isn’t healthy. Wyatt sees the weight problem up close when visiting his relatives in Perry County, in what we call L.A. “” Lower Alabama.
“Once we get there, we have a meal that is absolutely unbelievable,” Wyatt said. “I will have “” no exaggeration “” probably a plate with 4,000 calories on it. And my relatives will say to me, ‘Aw, you’re not eating much at all today. You should eat more than that.’ The culture part of it is if you’re not on the big side, folks where I’m from down in Perry County say you’re not healthy. Healthy to them means you’re not big enough.” By comparison, Wyatt said that a person with a healthy diet should consume no more than 2,000 calories a day.
The discussion of African Americans and weight took center stage this summer when President Obama picked Dr. Regina Benjamin of Bayou La Batre, Ala., to be his surgeon general nominee. Many pundits skipped over her stellar accomplishments “” a MacArthur “genius grant,” the first African-American woman appointed to the American Medical Association’s board of trustees, her service to the poor residents “” to play the fat card.
True, Benjamin is not Halle Berry-thin. But neither, as Wyatt pointed out, was former surgeon general C. Everett Koop. Besides, there’s another way to look at what it could mean to have an African-American surgeon general who is overweight. Benjamin can use her weight issues to give the office more relevance and meaning than ever, especially for blacks and others who share her struggles.
Maybe she can give guidance and hope to people such as Alexand er Draper and Jerri Gray. Draper, a 14-year-old boy from South Carolina, weighs 555 pounds. Gray, his mother, is facing criminal charges because the state believes she didn’t do enough to prevent the morbid obesity that threatens his health.
Mounting health risks
Those of us who are overweight, whether mildly or morbidly obese, are at greater risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. And now experts say we should add another life threat to the list: cancer.
“Cancer thrives in fat,” said Donna Green-Goodman, a national ambassador for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization. Green-Goodman, who is a breast cancer survivor, said the extra fat can affect hormone levels, which then increase the risks for many types of cancers.
This is the message that all Americans, but especially African Americans, need to hear. Obesity doesn’t have to be the cause of poor health or premature death for us.
Thankfully, some people are beginning to listen. The last time Wyatt visited Perry County, he said his great aunt, Mary McGlothin, who is obese, told him that she had made some changes.
“I got the sugar (diabetes), but what I know now is that I can still eat the same foods I’ve been eating all my life,” she said. “I just have to eat less.”
David Person is the host of WEUPTalk on WEUP-AM in Huntsville, Ala., a blogger for Adventist Today, and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.