How obesity has become a part of black culture

OPINION - Regular exercise, portion-control and healthy eating habits are not routinely ingrained into the structure of African-American families...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

African-Americans are the most obese group in the United States and it may be by choice.

Obesity is a growing epidemic in this country, with Americans eating more and becoming less and less active. Seventy-three percent of adults and 43 percent of all children in the United States are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among African-Americans 20 years and older, more than two-thirds are overweight or obese— defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 25 pounds or more (h). According to BMI charts, a woman who is 5-feet 5 inches tall and weighs 150 pounds is considered overweight. A man who stands at 5-feet 8 inches is considered overweight once he hits 175 pounds. What is often considered normal is actually unhealthy.

Carrying around those extra pounds increases the likelihood of developing type II diabetes and high blood pressure — two diseases that disproportionately affect African-Americans. Being overweight also increases the risk of stroke, heart disease, arthritis and certain cancers. In fact, obesity could become more dangerous for your health than smoking cigarettes.

Yet, in the African-American community, the so-called normal body image is skewed toward the unhealthy. Studies show a strong tendency to deem larger body sizes as acceptable, particularly for women.

“Many African-American women view being obese as part of their culture,” says Thaddeus Bell, M.D., a family practitioner in South Carolina, in an online interview for

It is understood within the African-American community that curvy, overweight women are considered more appealing to black men than normal- or under-weight women. There is almost a reverse distortion of body image — with thicker women fighting weight-loss and slender women wanting to gain weight in order to be accepted.

This may account for the staggering statistic that 4 out of 5 African-American women are overweight or obese. It is even more alarming that some of these women are making a choice to live at an unhealthy weight.

African-American women of all ages report less exercise than their white counterparts. “Many of them feel that it’s not feminine or they’re afraid to sweat because it will ruin their hairstyle,” adds Dr. Bell. Other hindrances include not having child care, not having enough time to be physically active, and not feeling safe being active in their neighborhoods.

African-American men aren’t off the hook either. African-American men also exercise less than white women, and have the highest prevalence of obesity among all male ethnic groups.

However, African-American men are more active than their female counterparts, which may be the reason that only 28.8 percent are obese, compared to 50.8 percent of African-American women.

With the head of the African-American family — the matriarch — more likely to be overweight and sedentary, it is no surprise that many black men and children are also overweight. Regular exercise, portion-control and healthy eating habits are not routinely ingrained into the structure of African-American families.

One in four African-American girls and almost one in five African-American boys are overweight. We are now beginning to see high blood pressure and type II diabetes — historically diseases of adulthood — in these overweight children. Seven out of every 10 overweight adolescents will become overweight adults. That number increases to eight if one or more parents is also overweight. Thus, the cycle continues.

The “soul food” tradition adds to the problem in some African-American households. Most of the recipes are passed down from generation to generation, usually from families who originated from the southern states. There is a strong social component to this style of cooking, centered around family gatherings or opportunities for the family’s matriarch to show her love for the family. However, traditional soul food is often cooked with fat, sugar and unhealthy amounts of salt that contribute to weight gain and high blood pressure. Ironically, soul food is often considered “good food,” as compared to fast-food, so the perception of healthy food choices are also skewed.

Even among those families who desire to eat healthier, doing so may not be economically feasible. One in four African-Americans still live in poverty, and there is a strong correlation between low income and obesity. Many impoverished neighborhoods do not even have an accessible grocery store with affordable, healthy options. It’s not hard to imagine that tasty, inexpensive fast-food beats out the cost and taste of lean meat, fresh fruits and vegetables.

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Fast-food companies also gear marketing efforts toward minority communities. While offhand these ads may appear culturally-sensitive, studies show that ethnic minorities are more responsive to these targeted ads and such marketing is, in fact, manipulative. This poses a dilemma as many of these ads are for less-than-healthy food and beverage options.

There are, however, national efforts to reverse these unhealthy perceptions and traditions. The “Black Women DO Workout” website and organizations such as the National Black Marathoners’ Association are encouraging African-Americans to pursue healthier lifestyles. With luck, African-American families can begin passing down the traditions of family fitness and health, rather than obesity and preventable diseases.