Experts weigh in on Black female obesity

By Charles Hallman
Contributing Writer

Almost half of young Black females today are obese compared to nearly a third of White females.

Obesity is a growing problem in this country, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES), which reports that among adults in Minnesota it’s 24 percent for Whites but 32 percent for Blacks (the statewide rate is 24 percent). Nationally among White men and White women it is 31 percent and 33 percent, respectively, but 37 percent for Black men and 49 percent for Black women. Among boys ages 12-19: 16 percent of Whites and 19 percent of Blacks; and for girls ages 12-19: 14 percent of Whites and 29 percent of Blacks.

Obesity also has both health and economic consequences: The health risks often include diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep apnea, gall bladder disease and some types of cancer. Meanwhile, diabetes, breast cancer and heart disease is higher among females, and obese girls are more likely to grow up to become obese adults.

Obesity is costly as well: For example, the annual healthcare costs in Minnesota are around $1.3 billion according to the Minnesota Dept. of Health.

Health experts define obesity as an adult person’s body mass index that’s measured greater than or equal to 30. “So for somebody that is 5-foot-3 and 140 pounds or more, you would be considered overweight; if you were over 170 pounds or more, you would be considered obese,” explained University of Minnesota Assistant Kinesiology Professor Beth Lewis. “That was for adults — it’s a little different for children.”

Lewis, Assistant Kinesiology Professor Daheia Barr-Anderson and Epidemiology and Community Health Professor Dianne Neumark-Sztainer were panelists October 20, speaking on obesity among Black females and other females of color at U-M’s Hubert H. Humphrey Center for this fall’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport distinguished lecture.

“There also are several reasons to be physically active other than just to lose weight,” claimed Lewis as she listed stress reduction “and how you feel” after exercise among them.

Barr-Anderson strongly suggested 30 to 60 minutes of daily physical activity for children and 150 minutes of “moderate activity” or 75 minutes of “vigorous activity” for adults rather than the “weekend warrior” approaches to exercising. She has received two grants to study the environmental influences on physical activity and obesity, especially among adolescent Black girls ages 11-18.

“We didn’t just focus on [the] food environment,” she explained of the study, which also includes the girls’ mothers and home visits. A second study was designed by Black middle-school girls and their mothers on “what they want and not what we want,” added Barr-Anderson.

“We have to consider everything that goes on in their lives,” continued Barr-Anderson, who adds that being physical fit “might not be at the top of your priority list” when other problems are more pressing. Furthermore, she refuses to subscribe to the idea that Black females don’t mind being big, a la the film Precious.

The professor pointed out, “We have that history of being accepting of the larger sizes, but I think just because the girls are larger doesn’t mean that they don’t want to lose weight. I think there is an issue of them feeling good about who they are, but also knowing that their size might not be the best for their health and wanting to do something to better their health.”

Barr-Anderson recently was invited to join a Facebook group called “Black Women DO Work Out!” — about 36,000 Black women share stories about not being obese or finding the needed discipline to stay physically active so they won’t be overweight.

“We all have different definitions [on what looks good],” she pointed out.

“It is a very fine line…on how you view yourself.”

Physical exercise doesn’t necessarily mean being athletic, the three experts concluded.

“There are a number of weight problems that are present among adolescent girls,” including eating disorders and body dissatisfaction, said Neumark-Sztainer, who added that single-sex physical education classes in school
might be ideal, especially among middle-school students.

The absence of boys might be ideal to encourage more physical activity among girls “who are going through the hormone changes,” Barr-Anderson noted.

“It is a good idea, especially for those girls who aren’t very active or very comfortable [exercising].”

“I think one of the important things in terms of preventing obesity, to lose weight or to prevent gaining weight after losing weight, it is important to combine both exercise and diet together,” said Lewis. “It is not just doing one thing or the other [because] a lot of times it is not enough to lose weight.”

“Doing something is better than doing nothing” no matter what gender, Barr-Anderson believes.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to