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Black Teens More Likely Obese

Researcher: Black Traditions, Physiology Makes Obesity Acceptable
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WebMD Health News

Jan. 9, 2003 -- American kids are overweight, but it's especially a problem among black teenage girls -- even those whose parents make the most money and are best educated.

A nationwide survey -- completed by more than 13,000 teens -- sheds some light on the growing problem of obesity.

At the highest family income levels, white girls were more likely to be thin. However, just the opposite was true for black females, report Penny Gordon-Larsen, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, and colleagues. Their paper appears in the January issue of Obesity Research.

She found that while obesity was a big problem for all groups of adolescents, black girls at every socioeconomic level were more likely to be obese. White, Hispanic, and Asian girls were less likely to be overweight. The researchers conclude that obesity is not just a reflection of differences in socioeconomics.They suggest that broad public health efforts need to be implemented to produce solutions to the national obesity epidemic in teens.

Among males, the disparity was not so extreme, she tells WebMD. "More Hispanic and black males were overweight, when compared with white and Asian males -- even at the higher income and education levels."

A mix of community, even physiological factors, are likely at work, says Monica Baskin, PhD, research assistant for the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta.

Body type and physiological differences seem to predispose African Americans to carry more weight, she tells WebMD. Studies show that blacks typically have a shorter trunk with different areas of fat deposits than other ethnic groups.

Blacks also have a lower metabolism, Baskin says. A sedentary lifestyle -- known to be a problem among all Americans -- only compounds the problem, she adds.

Cultural issues are also at play, she says. "In the black community, we celebrate with food -- cakes, pies. We traditionally cook food that may be higher in fat."

She also says the African-American culture appreciates obesity as an attractive quality. "It's OK to be heavier," says Baskin. "Adolescent girls tell us, 'Boys like you when have more meat on your bones. That's the kind of body type we want to keep.'"

As blacks get older, stress may exacerbate the weight problem, says Baskin. "The families we work with talk about competing in a majority culture, working long hours, coming up against discrimination. That may make them more prone to 'emotional eating.'"

Baskin and her colleagues are trying to turn things around in Atlanta. In a community program called "Go Girls," they work with black teens and their parents -- educating them about healthy cooking and lifestyle changes.

"We try to focus more on improving health, not on weight loss -- making sure they're eating fruits and vegetables, and getting 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week," she tells WebMD.

"We teach girls and their parents how to cook healthier, how to make substitutions in traditional African-American dishes like greens and yams so that they still taste great, have less fat and sugar, let them try different things like mangos and ugli fruit, so they know there's more than broccoli that's good for them."

The solution lies in "changing social consciousness, building awareness about health risks," adds Gordon-Larsen. "It's about building healthy communities, walkable communities -- safe environments where people can walk and exercise. If people are going grocery shopping, is there a place they can walk to? If there isn't, then we need to give it to them."

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