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.