Obesity Is Not Just a Weight Problem, It Is a Health Crisis

Emma D. Sapong, Buffalo News, August 29, 2009

The numbers were already shocking: Eight out of 10 black women are either overweight or obese. But now it’s worse: 40 percent are obese. And 54-year-old Susan Polite of Buffalo can be counted among them. At just 5-foot-2, Polite has weighed much as 240 pounds.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest report on obesity among adults found African Americans to have the highest rates, more than one in three are obese.

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Obesity, of course, isn’t a problem only among the black population. Americans of all ethnicities and races are battling the growing bulge–29 percent of Latinos and 24 percent of whites are obese. The national obesity rate climbed to 26.1 percent in 2008, according to the CDC. And last year a record $147 billion was spent to treat obesity-related health problems because most Americans are fatter than ever, Pang said.

But African-Americans have a 51 percent higher rate of obesity than whites.

Diet issues

Catherine Lewis-Smith, director of LEWAC, a nonprofit health outreach agency that conducts educational workshops on the lower West Side and in about 25 churches on the East Side, was once overweight and has hypertension and diabetes. She got rid of the extra pounds, her illnesses are under control and she uses herself as an example to inspire other black women to get in shape.

“There’s consumption of food without thought and all of sudden their weight is out of control,” the 63-year-old said. “Fast foods and sodas have become dietary staples in a culture that no longer cooks at home, exacerbating the problem.”

Polite said she made home-cooked meals but high in fat, like fried chicken, and when she didn’t, she and her daughter would eat out at Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King. She had a special weakness for strawberry milkshakes. And each year, Polite gained more weight.

Pang [Liping Pang, the epidemiologist who was the lead author of the CDC study] said there are various factors fueling the racial disparity when it comes to obesity. For one, blacks tend to have less access to fresh fruits and vegetables since their communities tend to have a plethora of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores and few supermarkets, selling fresh foods. And with many inner-cities plagued with crime, taking a healthy stroll through the neighborhood could become a safety issue. The authors of the study also found that black and Latino women tend to be more accepting and comfortable with their bodies.

“A person who is satisfied with their weight is less likely to try to exercise and try to lose weight,” Pang said.

When 20-year-old Robin Turner, who is 4-foot-10 and 160 pounds, stares into the mirror, she’s pleased.

“I love my body–my thighs, my booty,” said Turner, who is Polite’s daughter. “I like being thick; black women are just thicker. We’ve got junk in the trunk.”

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