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A Healthier, Happier New Year

A Healthier, Happier New Year

It’s almost inevitable that the dawn of a New Year inspires many of us to dedicate ourselves to a healthier lifestyle. After putting on a few extra pounds during the holiday season, we often find ourselves resolving in January to slim down and to maintain an optimal weight. How well Americans maintain healthy lifestyles through diet and exercise represents a significant question in the health care and health disparity research agenda. In this issue, former Black Issues editor B. Denise Hawkins talks to noted health researcher Dr. Shiriki K. Kumanyika in “Weighing In On African American Obesity.” A professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Kumanyika has gained prominence for investigating obesity and its link to health disparities among African Americans. Taking a prescriptive as well as descriptive approach in her research, she has studied strategies for preventing excess weight gain in and increasing exercise for African-American women and men. And in an effort to broaden the base of researchers working to reduce obesity in the Black community, Kumanyika has also rounded up 10 African- American female scholars to form the African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network (AACORN).

In a second feature, Hawkins writes about how bodily self-perception among African Americans influences attitudes about their weight. In a study of students at a Mid-Atlantic historically Black university, researcher Dr. Susan Gross showed that interest in having a large “muscular” body profile led many male students to not recognize that they were actually overweight. The preoccupation among these young Blacks to “look” either big and muscular in the case of males or curvy and voluptuous in the case of women revealed that few were concerned how their weight related to their overall health, according to Gross.

Getting at the root of obesity in the Black community is a complicated task. Researchers must look at cultural, historical and environmental issues. For example, college-educated Black women are substantially heavier than college-educated White women. And obesity levels don’t decrease as much with increasing income levels among Black women as they do with White women, Kumanyika has found. These are the types of factors researchers must further explore. And although extensive research has been conducted on obesity, very little has actually looked at African Americans and obesity.

A look at obesity gets to the heart of the health disparity issue. We can just as easily look at the rates of diabetes, heart disease or cancer in the Black community when highlighting health disparities. African Americans and other minorities are often left out of clinical trials and other studies, and increasingly health care and public health professionals are finding that a “one size fits all” treatment approach does not work. Certain medications are more effective in Whites than Blacks, for example, and there are certain types of cancers with higher mortality rates among African Americans. 

Black Issues will be looking at health disparities throughout the year. We thought we’d start with obesity as being severely overweight results in so many other ailments such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services released its new dietary guidelines, which encouraged Americans to increase consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole grains and to build in 30 to 90 minutes of exercise into their daily lives, recommending that we make maintaining a healthy body weight a top priority.

Hilary Hurd Anyaso

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