Obesity among minority women

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Detroit Free Press April 15, 2002


ROLE OF RACE: Minority women making dangerous gains


Margaret Atkins of St. Clair Shores has fought excess weight most of her life. At age 10, Atkins stood 5 feet 8 and weighed 175 pounds. At 57, her weight reached a high of 341 pounds.

That was the breaking point.

Her body had become an issue. Turning over in bed was a chore. Sitting in certain chairs was a struggle. Standing up was an even bigger challenge. Her knees ached. Her blood pressure was controlled by pills. Atkins had the beginnings of congestive heart failure.

She had become part of a troubling trend in this country. Statistics show that diseases linked with excess weight are seen in greater numbers among black and Hispanic women.

Now, at 66, Atkins' height has settled at 5 feet 6 1/2 inches and her weight at 180 pounds. She is off the heart medication, and the dosage of her blood pressure pills is low. Atkins works out nearly 24 hours a week, and has given up much of the soul food she grew up on.

"The goal was not to look a particular way," she said. "The goal was to feel better."

For many women of color like Atkins, a robust figure is not a problem. While popular culture exalts a super-slender ideal, black and Hispanic women typically covet curves and contours of diverse proportions.

"Minorities are less preoccupied with varying degrees of increased corpulence," said Dr. Jose Yanez, director of the Beaumont Hospital Weight Control Center in Birmingham. "They are less dissatisfied with their body image, and that goes for both men and women."

However, a cultural perception that results in a more positive body image may also allow for the acceptance of widespread overweight and obesity, which is defined as 20 percent more than a person's ideal weight. Women in ethnic and racial minority groups are leading the overweight and obesity populations in the United States.

Sixty-nine percent of non-Hispanic black women and 70 percent of Mexican-American women are overweight or obese, compared with 47 percent of non-Hispanic white women, according to "The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity," a report released in December by former Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher.

High overweight and obesity are not without consequence. Facts gathered by the National Women's Health Information Center demand attention:

About 1 in 4 black women over age 55 has Type 2 diabetes, nearly twice the rate of white women.

Twenty-five percent of Hispanic women have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes; about 33 percent of deaths among them list diabetes as the underlying cause.

There are higher heart disease risk factors among black and Mexican-American women than among white women of comparable socioeconomic status..

Heart disease, stroke and diabetes are among the leading causes of death among black and Hispanic women.

Obstacles to a healthy weight

Coupled with genetics, culture and community add to the levels of excess weight seen in black and Hispanic women. As with most Americans regardless of race, diet and lack of physical activity is weighing down women of color.

Traditional ethnic diets are often high in starch and fat, and low in variety and nutrition. Soul food favorites like potatoes, rice, corn, peas or beans, and leafy greens cooked in pork fat do not constitute a well-rounded diet.

A sedentary lifestyle is another culprit, experts say. Women of all races tend to be less physically active than men for various reasons, said Mary Nies, director of the Center for Health Research at Wayne State University.

Consider the Physical Activity Intervention Study, for which Nies is the principal researcher. The study is designed to increase the level of movement among black and low-income white women, who are typically less active than white women of higher socioeconomic status, living in metro Detroit.

Nies found that unsafe neighborhoods, a lack of sidewalks, bad weather, a lack of financial resources and limited time are major stumbling blocks. Funded by the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Nursing Research, the intervention study encourages women to walk at least 30 minutes each day.

"Women in the intervention group that completed the study told us that they could deal with the stresses of life much better," Nies said.

A lifelong struggle

Nothing stops Atkins. She walks two hours each morning, even in bad weather. She takes a step-aerobics class four times a week. She weight-trains twice a week and visits Fitness USA three times a week, for an hour each time.

It was not always this way.

Atkins met her first diet at age 10.

"I can remember the doctor telling my mother that I needed to lose some weight," she said. Losing weight back then meant only three slices of bread a day.

"We are talking about the '40s. I ate the things that black people ate at the time," she said.

When Atkins married at age 20, she was about 150 pounds. In the years that followed, her weight rose and fell with the waves of building a family. Atkins, who is now divorced, had her first child in 1957. "I put on weight, and I kept it on."

Her second child arrived in '58. She gained more weight. Atkins gave birth twice more within the next five years, and kept gaining.

"African-American women, in particular, are more apt to gain excessive weight during pregnancy," said Edie Kieffer, associate research scientist with the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Lack of community resources, poor access to healthy foods and lack of knowledge about nutrition are partly to blame, she said.

Obesity during pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of death in the baby and the mother and an increased risk of other health problems, including maternal high blood pressure, gestational diabetes and problems with labor and delivery, according to the surgeon general's report.

An emotional yo-yo

After childbirth, Atkins struggled to lose weight. She strung together diet after diet.

There were diet pills, too. She would lose pounds but gain them back -- plus more.

The excess weight, Atkins said, was not born of a profound love of food. Weight gain was caught up in the twists and turns, heartbreak and heartache of life.

"It doesn't matter what kind of food it was. I just ate," said Atkins, who was a manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan for 31 years, retiring in 1997.

Food was comfort. It was there through a divorce, the suicide of her youngest son, her oldest daughter's struggle with drugs, and the raising of twin grandchildren.

Driven by increased discomfort and worry about the potential of weight-related health risks, Atkins enrolled at the Beaumont Hospital Weight Control Center. "I knew that unless I started to lose weight, I would be at 400 or 450 or 500 pounds," she said.

The Beaumont program appealed to Atkins because it was straightforward. No calorie counting. No fussy recipes. No choices.

Food was replaced by protein shakes. The program called for Atkins to exercise enough to burn 2,000 calories each week. At first, she said, the exercise component was hard.

Atkins lost 130 pounds in 18 months. She started eating food again and continued to exercise. But she stopped going to the clinic, didn't control her food, and the pounds crept back.

Before long, Atkins was back up to 278 pounds. Sheenrolled at Beaumont again. There would be no slacking. Last year, Atkins' oldest son, who was a physician, died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage at age 44. He had warned his mother of the health traps linked to excess weight. She still hears his voice.

"We got word of his death on a Saturday," Atkins said. "That Sunday morning I got up and I just started walking, because I knew that it is what he would have wanted me to do."

A shining example

As Atkins continues to stride toward good health, other women take shorter steps. Atkins' 41-year-old daughter, Kathleen, is 5 feet 6 inches tall and 230 pounds. She was diagnosed with high blood pressure earlier this month.

"I don't want to be skinny," said Kathleen Atkins, who typically wears a size 18 or 20. "It is a cultural thing."

Kathleen Atkins, director of workforce services at the Detroit Workplace, marvels at her mother's success. "It is great that she is healthy," she said. "I am really proud of her."

For Atkins, life is good now. Eating better and working out is paying off, and it has cost nothing, she said.

"I didn't give up my collard greens. I didn't give up my cabbage and green beans. Now I just cook them differently," Atkins said. "I get out of the bed in the morning, and I just feel great."

-- (lars@indy.net), April 15, 2002


Does it follow that minority women have a lower incidence of anorexia and bulemia?

-- (lars@indy.net), April 15, 2002.

Does it follow that minority women have a lower incidence of anorexia and bulemia?

They aren't influenced by the media push to white women which tries to convince them that a "barbie" figure is the ideal.

They may be overweight compaired to the babes on baywatch, but are comfortable with their weight (as long as they are not obese) and their men are content and accepting of their weight.

They see the media BS that tells them they will be perfect if their weight is below the healthy level. The foods passed down from the days of slavery where they were given the "leftovers" and foods the masta's wouldn't touch. It takes generations to change habits, but it does happen. Considering 30 years ago blacks couldn't get many jobs that paid a decent wage, it is no wonder the old habits they learned from their parents continued.

-- Cherri (whatever@who.cares), April 16, 2002.

I like big butts and I can not lie
You other brothers can't deny
That when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist
And a round thing in your face
You get sprung
Wanna pull up tough
Cuz you notice that butt was stuffed
Deep in the jeans she's wearing
I'm hooked and I can't stop staring
Oh, baby I wanna get with ya
And take your picture
My homeboys tried to warn me
But that butt you got
Make Me so horney
Ooh, rump of smooth skin
You say you wanna get in my benz
Well use me use me cuz you aint that average groupy

I've seen them dancin'
The hell with romancin'
She's Sweat,Wet, got it goin like a turbo vette

I'm tired of magazines
Saying flat butts are the thing
Take the average black man and ask him that
She gotta pack much back

So Fellas (yeah) Fellas(yeah)
Has your girlfriend got the butt (hell yeah)
Well shake it, shake it, shake it, shake it, shake that healthy butt
Baby got back

(LA face with Oakland booty)

I like'em round and big
And when I'm throwin a gig
I just can't help myself
I'm actin like an animal
Now here's my scandal

I wanna get you home
And UH, double up UH UH
I aint talkin bout playboy
Cuz silicone parts were made for toys
I wannem real thick and juicy
So find that juicy double
Mixalot's in trouble
Beggin for a piece of that bubble
So I'm lookin' at rock videos
Knockin these bimbos walkin like hoes
You can have them bimbos
I'll keep my women like Flo Jo
A word to the thick soul sistas
I wanna get with ya
I won't cus or hit ya
But I gotta be straight when I say I wanna --
Til the break of dawn
Baby Got it goin on
Alot of pimps won't like this song
Cuz them punks lie to hit it and quit it
But I'd rather stay and play
Cuz I'm long and I'm strong
And I'm down to get the friction on

So ladies (yeah), Ladies (yeah)
Do you wanna roll in my Mercedes (yeah)
Then turn around
Stick it out
Even white boys got to shout
Baby got back

(LA face with the Oakland booty)

Yeah baby
When it comes to females
Cosmo ain't got nothin to do with my selection
Yah only if you're 5'3"

So your girlfriend rolls a Honda
Playin workout tapes by Fonda
But Fonda ain't got a motor in the back of her Honda
My anaconda don't want none unless you've got buns hun
You can do side bends or sit-ups, but please don't lose that butt
Some brothers wanna play that hard role
And tell you that the butt ain't gold
So they toss it and leave it
And I pull up quick to retrieve it
So cosmo says you're fat
Well I ain't down with that
Cuz your waste is small and your curves are kickin
And I'm thinkin bout stickin
To the beanpole dames in the magazines
You aint it miss thing
Give me a sista I can't resist her
Red beans and rice didn't miss her
Some knucklehead tried to dis
Cuz his girls were on my list
He had game but he chose to hit 'em
And I pulled up quick to get with 'em
So ladies if the butt is round
And you wanna triple X throw down
Dial 1-900-MIXALOT and kick them nasty thoughts
Baby got back

-- Baby Got Back (cin@cin.cin), April 16, 2002.

The statistics say it all. Twenty five percent had Type 2 diabetes and 1/3 die from it. Wow!

The real question is why do we have such extremes; one group dies from starvation and the other group dies from overeating. When did women's body image get so fucked up?

-- Maria (anon@ymous.com), April 17, 2002.

Maybe it started back in foot-binding days.

-- (cin@cin.cin), April 17, 2002.

Maria, body image became a problem when pictures of bodies became widely available as marketing tools. The marketers picked the marketed shapes. Apparently enough of the marketers preferred boyish shapes to cause a pervasive trend in what was commonly thought of as beauty. That they preferred boyish shapes may indicate their own personal interests. It was merely a sorry accident of fate.

-- helen (bullshit@with.the.best.of.em), April 17, 2002.

Helen, I understand that trend but find the lack of NOW response to it ironic. Last night I watched the Carrier thing on NBC with women on board. Big mistake if you ask me (I know you didn't but who said I'd hold back giving my opinion :)

NOW fought to have women work in any aspect of society even ones where clearly they shouldn't be working. Yet where are they in denouncing these marketing strategies, nowhere. It doesn't suit their cause to 'support' the abuse of women when it comes to Calvin Kline and condone harmful body images, yet they'll certainly support women's labor rights no matter how harmful that is to our national defense. The show went on to discuss how one women was being sent home because she became pregnant while on board. Well duh! Put men and women in close quarters and look what happens. I find this as just one example of contradicting political agendas.

Sorry about the tangent.

-- Maria (anon@ymous.com), April 18, 2002.

Does NOW receive donations from the fashion industry?

-- helen (disclosure@statements.are.fun), April 18, 2002.

LOL They just might! I guess even they believe that 'image is everything'.

-- Maria (anon@ymous.com), April 19, 2002.

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