Michele Gourdine, MD, a pediatrician and the CEO of Michelle Gourdine and Associates, was always fascinated as to why African-Americans disproportionately suffered from a range of health issues such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity. "These statistics really bothered me," Gourdine says. "I was not detached from these statistics either. This is about me, my family, my friends, the people at my church and my community as a whole."
It's that personal connection that inspired Gourdine to write Reclaiming Our Health: A Guide to African-American Wellness (Yale University Press, $19.95). Reclaiming our Health, an interactive and empowering book, offers up practical advice and invaluable information to jumpstart one's quest for better health.
BET.com sat down with Gourdine to talk about her eye-opening book, why we all need to strengthen our health literacy and why poor health doesn't have to be our destiny.
We hear so much about how black people are suffering from so many illnesses and how we have a shorter life span than other races, it can be really discouraging.
This is why it's important that we in the African-American community cannot accept poor health as our conclusion. Just because there is a predisposition to these diseases or a family history that increases your risk, doesn’t mean we are absolutely going to develop cancer, or have a stroke or high blood pressure. Nothing is guaranteed. This is about nature and nurture. You can do things to make sure you reduce your risk.
It's a given that structural racism, lack of access to health care and disproportionate poverty play a huge role in health disparities. But what are some of the personal obstacles that serve as barriers to us taking care of our health?
There are a lot of misconceptions out there, that African-Americans just don't care about their health — and that just isn't true. Most people know what to do, but there is a difference between knowing what we need to do and actually doing it. This is also true for me. For years, I knew I needed to work out, lose weight and stay active, but there were certain cultural barriers for me to not getting it.
I was worried about my hair. And like many African-American women who don’t have wash-and-wear hair, I wanted to make sure that my hair was presentable and working out made it hard. Also, I am Southern and love Southern food. It's very comforting and these foods were important to me. For African-Americans, food goes beyond nutrition — it's how we show love, socialize and mourn. And so these cultural issues that stand in the way of knowing and doing need to be addressed in our community in order to really be able to improve our health.
How important is health literacy?
Very important. Health literacy is an issue across the board that impacts all communities. Pertaining to African-American health, health literacy is important to address in order to understand why we get sicker and die younger than anyone else.
This is why I took five years to gather respected research to provide accurate information in my book. It was really important to me to make the information approachable and accessible, so that the readers can understand it. Also, I wanted the book to be practical. I have said to my patients' parents, "Make sure that your child eats right and gets exercise." But for many of the families I see, they live in "food deserts" [where healthy food is unavailable] and areas that are not safe to let their child go outside and play.
So it's important for experts to take into consideration people's environments and meet individuals where they are. In my book, I have practical tips for people who cannot afford the gym. For example, for the last ten minutes of your lunch at work, take a walk around the building or, instead of talking the elevator at work, walk up and down the steps a few flights.
What are three things that we can do today in hopes to improve our health?
1. Know your numbers. You need to know three basic numbers to start the journey of reclaiming your health: your weight, height, and blood pressure. If your blood pressure is higher than 120/80, see your doctor. With your weight and height, you can calculate your body mass index (BMI). If it's 25 or more, you are overweight. If it's 30 or more, you're obese.
2. Walk 10 minutes every day. Your body was made to move. If you don't, your body 'rusts' from the inside out. Regular physical activity helps you lose weight, feel better and live longer. In fact, studies say that it can add years to your lifespan.
3. Eat one extra serving of fruit or vegetable each day. Fruits and vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting chemicals called antioxidants. The brighter the color, the more health benefits it contains.
We have a long legacy of making something out of nothing — we went from being slaves to having an African-American in the White House. We can apply that same resiliency towards improving our health and our mindsets, and believing that our strength is important.
(Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Gourdine)
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