Originally published in Uptown Magazine, May/June 2013 by Erika Nicole Kendall
NOT TO SOUND AN ALARM OR ANYTHING BUT BLACK AMERICA IS IN CRISIS.
You haven’t heard? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 70 percent of black men and 80 percent of black women are either overweight or obese. Nearly 26 percent of our children between the ages of 6 and 17 are obese. Obesity isn’t the sole cause for concern, as we are developing heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol at rates far exceeding our non-black counterparts.
If you pay close enough attention, the implication is that it’s our fault that we’re fat. Documentaries like Soul Food Junkies lay blame at the feet of the rich dishes we’ve eaten since we came to America. And studies like one conducted by researchers at Cardiff University and University of Bristol—which aimed to determine why exercise seemed to fail at helping young black girls lose weight—declared that, genetically, we process fat inefficiently, implying that our bodies prefer to be fat.
It’s the old-fashioned pathology that dysfunction is inherently rooted in black culture; our music, our hair, our food, and our bodies are all flawed and need to be fixed. But after years of writing about nutrition, one thing has become clear: This weight thing is not the racial battle we’ve been led to believe it is.
The first indicators of an American weight problem were uncovered circa 1994, when scientist Katherine Flegal realized that 20 million people had become overweight over the course of approximately a decade. Numbers that had long been stagnant were increasing quickly enough to cause concern. In the 1960s, the average 20- to 29-year-old woman weighed 129 pounds. In 2000, the latest year for which comparative data is available, she weighed 157. What happened over the course of 40 years to cause such a change in the trajectory of America’s weight?
I HAVE A FEW IDEAS
In the early 20th century, our government approached food manufacturing with trepidation, and it showed. Early advertising for breakfast cereal included explanations of how it was made (shot from extruder guns), and claims that the buyer should embrace processed food as “the future.” It conveyed a clear message: “Let us do the work for you.”
What the food manufacturing industry didn’t realize until much later is that processing food destroyed the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and gut flora that help a body not only survive, but thrive. The products, while cheaper and quicker to prepare, were nutritionally deficient. So they were promptly stuffed with lab-created vitamins to rectify the deficit.
The companies grew, crafting more—as author Michael Pollan calls it—“edible foodlike substances” for the American public to enjoy, including a product so stuffed with additives that it could no longer call itself “cheese,” instead taking on the name “singles,” and “maple syrup” loaded with high fructose corn syrup as opposed to the blood sugar–friendly tree sap. Accepting these adulterated foods allowed for the creation of margarine, a synthetic food product once touted as the thing to help America beat its butter addiction. And accepting margarine—made purely of the trans fats that the Food and Drug Administration later identified as unhealthy—is what led to countless diagnoses of heart disease and, ultimately, death.
BUT IT GETS WORSE
It used to be that if something was an artificial version of a real, familiar product, it had to identify itself as such. Not so after 1973. Thanks to new “regulation,” we saw an influx of products that were no longer the wholesome recipes we’d been accustomed to, and they carried no quick way, such as in the labels, to tell the difference. Suddenly, ingredient lists were full of hyphens, dashes, color numbers (yellow #4, anyone?), and sugar. Ahh, yes. How could we forget the sugar?
Somewhere along the line, the industry stumbled upon the trifecta: sugar, fat, and salt. Combine any two of the three together the right way, and your brain falls in L-O-V-E. Food brands survive on loyalty. It wasn’t enough to entrench themselves in our homes and our stomachs—they wanted to get into our hearts, too. So they sought to give customers everything they wanted—to compel them to come back and buy again. Tasty and cheap? Who wouldn’t keep coming back for more?
BETCHA CAN’T EAT JUST ONE
What kinds of cultural changes can happen when brands get you hooked on what they’re selling? Besides the natural, organic corn in your cornbread being replaced with sugary Jiffy mix, and the animals on your plate being raised in ways that result in far more fat than actual muscle in every cut? The most important change is that nearly two generations grew up without learning to cook. They are dependent upon processed food—devoid of nutrition, filled with sugar, fat, and salt—to survive, and leaving their health in the hands of companies far more interested in pleasing their shareholders than contributing to their consumers’ health.
We’ve come to the crux of the problem: The most cheaply made, cheaply stocked, and cheaply sold products are the least healthy, least nutritious, and least filling—yet they are the most widely available. In a country where so many people live at or below the poverty line, who, regardless of race, wouldn’t consider a cheap meal a steal?
As a society that trusted food science in ways we’d never trusted it before, we were collectively let down. All of us. To continue painting obesity as a black problem is to let processed food manufacturers off the hook. To continue painting this as an issue of race, rather than economics, ignores the reality of poverty and alleviates us of responsibility for its consequences. It protects us from having to do the work.
This isn’t a problem of culture. It is a problem of processed food. It isn’t black America’s problem; it’s everyone’s problem. We’d be wise to remember that before we diss Big Mama’s soul food.
I can remember seeing old pictures of my grandparents as teens – they grew their own food,ate simply had an active lifestyle , lots of walking and working outside. My grandmother found this to be “poor” and was ashamed of this. But she and all the family in those photos are regular weight. My moms generation (70s) “fixed” foods- fried, gravy, ect. No gardens and worked inside. Not as much walking or outside life- that was considered “poor”. As a result, my mom and sisters are obese as are their children (me). I agree, I think black people are fat because of our shift from whole foods to processed, from active life to sedentary and showing love with rich foods.
I don’t know what else to say, Erika. You’ve said it all.
“As a society that trusted food science in ways we’d never trusted it before, we were collectively let down. All of us…This isn’t a problem of culture. It’s a problem of processed food.”
Its true. Process foods equal obesity,heart disease, diabetes,high blood pressure and numerous other ailments that are food related. Black America has embraced the diet of death, processed foods. Fruit juices are no replacement for whole fruit. The sugar and salt content of a simple slice of bread is amazing. The massive number of products that are made of starch,sugar, fat, and salt is off the chain. When companies introduce new foods to the market they usually consist of the same old content (starch,sugar,fat, and salt). Process foods equal massive carbohydrate overload to our systems. Every system in the human body is adversely affected by a diet high in processed foods. I have gone to conventions and saw people hiding their non processed meals. Covering their food as they ate because they were afraid of being made fun of by other African Americans for eating whole foods (old school soul food) as apposed to fast food from the big three. All of America is under siege from the massive amount of cheap processed food being advertised daily. Whatever your nationality is, I am sure abandoning process food would benefit all. I am determine to reclaim my health after a decades of junk food.
This is excellent. I’ve been saying this (though not quite so eloquently) for a long time now. I will be sharing this article. Thank you so much for posting it!!
I’ve always looked at pictures of my grandparents and said “you two were so skinny!” Heck, everybody was skinny back then, and they were eating the same ol’ soul food, but actually, quite a bit more of it than they do today. Of course, now, we all have some extra weight we don’t remember coming but know for dang sure we’re having a hard time making it go. The fast, cheap, bad, processed food. The inactive lifestyle. Something’s gotta give.
Great article Erika, I also agree with you. The problem is the manufacturing of our food supplies, companies are slow to change and the more we the consumer remain in the dark the more harmful food becomes. So rather than being our medicine food is slowing poisoning us.
I love this, but I wonder about one thing.
“The most important change is that nearly two generations grew up without learning to cook.”
Why do you think that is? My reason is that when schools went through budget cuts, things like home economics were cut. But I also remember as a teenager in the 70’s that there was a huge uproar because girls were the ones who had to take home economics while the boys took shop; and what happened was that both were scrapped.
Knowing how to cook isn’t a sexist thing, it’s a survival thing. If you can’t cook and depend on processed foods, and take out, what will happen if you fall on hard times and can’t afford the processed stuff and take out?
“Why do you think that is?”
This is easy and hard at the same time.
I think there’s a lot of reasons – the need for more employment/more time devoted to work encouraged the use of “convenience foods” that would allow you to work longer house and save time (and money!) by cooking a processed food product. If that’s all you know, growing up, then chances are high your parents also never had the time to TEACH you how to cook.
I’d also say that the crash/dissolving of several industries – namely factory work – affected the amount of money a family had to spend on fresh produce, thereby resulting in generations that never learned how to eat/use it.
I had home ec in the 90s in middle school, and had it at high school – (I’m probably showing my age, but YOLO. <- see?) - and I can't really say that it really contributed to my understanding of how to bake as opposed to “how to follow a recipe.” Following a recipe isn’t hard – creating a malleable dough that bakes into something flavorful, however, is.
Learning how to cook isn’t sexist, and is necessary for both genders, but the truth is that when feminism granted women with the right to work and earn their own, the perception that cooking IS some kind of woman’s work resulted in men outright rejecting learning how to do it themselves to try to pick up some of the responsibilities that open up when a household becomes a two-income home. In other words, men being reluctant to learn how to cook so that they could do it when necessary also contributed to it. It could easily be noted that that’s a part of the generations failing to learn to cook, too. Men who were adamant about it being women’s work. Unfortunately, those men still haven’t gone the way of the dodo bird in 2013.
Processed foods are evil. I agree with this article. Now I only buy frozen vegetable.
I agree with you completely! After losing 187 pounds I now understand the things that made me so heavy. One thing I find now when I explain to people who ask me for tips on losing weight is that the number one excuse is that I have no time. Many people have no time to exercise, prepare healthy meals, drink water and go to the doctor. Well they better start making time because my life was a time bomb waiting to explode. I have to admit it is hard to find the balance to do everything but in the end it is so worth it.
I think this is a great article but Michael Pollan’s work while popular is not scientifically based. I agree that the major reason obesity has impacted BLk people at such an alarming rate is largely do to poverty. Predominately BLK neighborhoods lack access to fresh fruits and vegetable while contribute to the unhealthy eating habits. As a food scientist that has worked for one of the top food manufactures I am well aware of the types of things that go on within the business from marketing to the innovation of processed foods.
“As a food scientist”
As a food scientist, you should know that this:
“I think this is a great article but Michael Pollan’s work while popular is not scientifically based.”
is gonna need a lot more quantification than your credentials… especially with those kinds of credentials. With all due respect.
Rather include my full CV I just simply stated that I am a Food Scientist while Michael Pollan is a Journalist. Their are numerous articles that have been publish in peer reviewed journal to support links between processed foods and obesity. Anyone can get a book published (book companies are about selling books not accuracy) but very few can publish articles which have been peer reviewed. Here is one example article to consider which is much more creditable than Michael Pollan’s work: Racial and Ethnic Residential Segregation, the Neighborhood Socioeconomic Environment, and Obesity Among Blacks and Mexican Americans
Kiarri N. Kershaw et al. Am. J. Epidemiol. (2013) 177 (4): 299-309.
There are numerous other examples available in Academic Food Studies and Science journals. Just to be clear I definitely have the credentials to speak on this subject and my phd will be completed in a matter of months. I have worked for the World Headquarters of a major food company and I have been in Food and Nutritional research for over 9 years traveling the nation and abroad. It was just a suggestion not an attack.
No one asked for your full CV – don’t take this so personally. The fact remains, that simply saying “this isn’t scientific” doesn’t pass muster for debunking something. This is the Internet. People try to discredit logical and otherwise valid information with anecdote every day. No one said you didn’t have the credentials – what I DID say was that it’s a flag to simply say you’re a food scientist who has worked with these manufacturers (thereby displaying conflict of interest), and that Pollan’s writing isn’t “scientifically-based.” If I recall correctly, the book references several studies. Even with my acknowledging the conflict of interest, I’m willing to engage in discussion about the topic, but just saying “I’m a scientist” and “that’s it” isn’t enough.
Pollan is a journalist, sure, but there are journalists and doctors and – gasp – every day people writing books about fitness and nutrition on both sides of the coin. None of that says anything about why either would be inaccurate.
Credentials, though hard-fought, aren’t more valuable than actual research or actual discussion on the specifics, which is what I was getting at. I’m surprised you took that as an attack.
I’ll look at the study, but it appears that I’m trying to coax you into a conversation you seem unwilling to have, so I’ll tap out.
I don’t mind having a discussion my only point was to suggest using creditable sources. If you would like to make an argument about the effects of processed foods on health it is best to use scientific articles.
…as he did in many of his books. Great to know. Thanks!
Here is a publication which pretty much explains why Pollan should not be cited.
Not sure if the link will pull up the article but the title is: Commentary on teaching food: Why I am fed up with Michael Pollan et al.
Read that a while back. Thanks for sharing, though!
Do you have any new things coming up for the fall.
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