Weighing in on African American Obesity: Researchers Look for Clues in Eliminating Obesity-Related Disparities, Particularly among Black Women

Article excerpt

Everybody is getting fatter. The poor are getting fatter, Gen Xers are getting fatter, African-American women and Hispanic men are getting fatter, and children too young to even have a category are really getting fatter But for African Americans and other people of color, the need to lose weight, adopt healthy diets and get fit, is more than a New Year's resolution, it's a matter of life and death.

While obesity has long been seen as a minority issue, the study of the disease among African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians has gotten little attention from researchers and scholars until recently.

"All of a sudden minorities have company from the general population," says Dr. Shiriki K. Kumanyika, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. "The newfound attention to the problem can only benefit us all," adds Kumanyika who for more than two decades has been weighing in on what the nation is eating and how weight and nutrition impact chronic diseases. She, like many researchers and scientists, have become increasingly alarmed by rapidly rising number of Americans who are overweight or obese, but Kumanyika is one of the few scholars working on the management of obesity and the link to health disparities among African Americans.

In this special focus on obesity and weight gain, we learn about Kumanyika's efforts to mentor and grow a new cadre of African-American researchers who are taking aim at addressing obesity and related issues in the Black community; we find out what a group of graduating seniors from an HBCU in the Mid-Atlantic region is telling nutritionist Dr. Susan M. Gross of Morgan State University in Baltimore about how they perceive their body size and weight and the health risk associated with looking good; and a new study, says Dr. Yvonne Bronner, researcher and director of the Public Health Program at Morgan State, gives hope to those who thought that they were lactose intolerant and touts the use of calcium-rich diets in weight and disease management.

BI: Your work and research is almost always cited when it comes to research on African American and Hispanic obesity. How would you quantify the level and quantity of research being done and effective interventions aimed at African Americans when it comes to obesity and its link to health disparities?

SK: The amount of research on African Americans and obesity and weight control is almost nonexistent. If you put it on a scale with the amount of research that has been done on obesity, you can't even get a signal. There is a small amount of research being done on this area of research, even with the recent interest ... there are probably less than 50 informative studies about how to prevent or treat obesity in African Americans and that includes African Americans who have been in studies with Whites and where comparisons were made on how the (weight-loss) program worked.

A lot of the literature suggests that either African Americans drop out of studies or they lose somewhat less weight or both. In literature reviews, I find even less information (on studies and clinical trials) done on the Latino population.

BI: For more than two decades" you have devoted a substantial part of your research efforts to studying dietary change and weight-management strategies for the control of chronic diseases. What are some of the current projects and research efforts on which you are working?

SK: I'm working almost exclusively on obesity-related issues. I have a center funded by the National Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities at NIH (National Institutes of Health), which is under project EXPORT (Excellence in Partnership for Community Outreach, Research on Health Disparities and Training). We are trying to stimulate new research on reducing obesity and obesity-related health disparities in inner-city communities primarily and ultimately in Latino communities. …