A new analysis of weight statistics nationwide shows how the rate of obesity disproportionately affects African-Americans and Hispanics, with much of the disparity hinging on economics and access to healthy food and safe environments.
The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America report, released Thursday by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, showed there to be deep racial and financial chasm that also reflects critical health outcomes.
Obesity rates for whites are higher than 30 percent in 10 states. But for African-Americans, they exceed 40 percent in 11 states and 30 percent in 41 states. For Hispanics, the rates are above 30 percent in 23 states.
In all, nearly half – 47.8 percent – of African-Americans and 42.5 percent of Hispanics are obese, compared with 32.6 of whites. These disparities are important to understand because African-Americans and Hispanics have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, renal disease and stroke, all of which can be influenced by obesity.
At the same time, one-third of adults who earn less than $15,000 a year are obese, compared with one-quarter who earn $50,000 or more.
“Why all of this is occurring is complex,” said Dr. Elliott Antman, president of the American Heart Association. Yet, the AHA “is committed to minimizing the disparity in healthcare and health outcomes.”
The availability of heart healthy food and the prevalence of “food deserts” is one important piece, said Antman, a professor of medicine and associate dean for Clinical/Translational Research at Harvard Medical School.
More than 24 million people live in these “deserts,” in which they lack access to groceries within a mile of their home. Even when there are shops, the food isn’t always the healthiest.
The obesity report — which was compiled from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics gathered from behavioral surveys, as well as expert interviews, analysis and case studies – showed there is less access to supermarkets and nutritious, fresh foods in many urban and lower-income neighborhoods. Fewer healthy items also are often more heavily marketed in these stores.
But food access is just part of the complicated picture, said Antman. The AHA is looking to find solutions with its new Strategically Focused Research Networks, which bring together teams of various researchers at different institutions to share information and attack problems related to heart disease and stroke. It has networks to focus on areas of prevention, hypertension, and minimizing health disparities.
It’s that kind of teamwork and focus on larger forces that prompted Shiriki K. Kumanyika, to establish the African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network based at the University of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine.
“What this report does, which is long overdue,” said Kumanyika, an emeritus professor of epidemiology who chairs this network, “is call attention to the disparities in a way that is designed to point to solutions to the problem. It challenges the notion the disparities are due primarily to a lack of knowledge or caring about weight – by emphasizing the role of factors that are beyond the control of any given individual, but which can be improved by collective actions of community members and civic organizations and by policies that are designed to protect health. “
Besides the mix of food products available and promoted in many minority and low income communities—which tend to promote intake of too many calories—a housing and a dearth of opportunities related to living an active lifestyle become obesity-promoting factors than can make it difficult for people to burn enough calories in their daily routines to stay healthy, Kumanyika said.
“Basically, the report is saying that communities of color or communities with a high percent of residents living in poverty will have difficulty fighting obesity unless they mobilize to change these conditions, which will require new resources and new initiatives,” she said. “The report can motivate people within and outside of communities of color to make this change happen. “
Rev. Michael O. Minor, who graduated Harvard with an economics degree and moved back home to become pastor of Oak Hill Baptist Church in Hernando, Mississippi, already is seeing some of that change. He’s helping to make more happen.
He travels the country preaching his “gospel of healthy living” and to transform a Southern church-supper culture that prizes fried foods, salt and sugar.
“I think we are never going to get any farther on this until we start having a dialogue about ingredients,” he said. But he also believes it doesn’t end there.
“I believe in mind, body and spirit,” Minor said. “We have to work on giving people a little hope. … If you’ve got nothing and you’re barely making it, what are you worried about how you look?”
Minor said that change needs to happen in minority communities for change to occur in obesity rates.
“If you have some hope and something to look forward to, it changes your whole perspective. We underestimate the power of self-esteem,” he said.
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