On November 11, BET, in conjunction with the New York Association of Black Journalists and The New York Times, presented a roundtable discussion on the problem of obesity in the African-American community. Titled “The U.S. Obesity Epidemic, African Americans at Risk,” a room packed with journalists, medical specialists and members of the health and fitness industry came to weigh in on obesity and its widespread, devastating effects.
The panel was comprised of six experts that have been on the front lines in the fight to reduce the growing waistlines in the Black community: Former NFL offensive lineman and TV commentator Jamie Dukes; Dr. William Gibbs, creator of the Pediatric Lifestyle Program at New York Hospital; Lynya Floyd, Essence Magazine Senior Editor, Health & Relationships; Roy S. Johnson, editor in chief of Men’s Fitness and MensFitness.com; Dr. Collin Braithwaite, Bariatric Surgeon, Winthrop Bariatric Surgery Center; and moderator Dr. Virgie Bright Ellington, author of “What Your Doctor Wants You to Know but Doesn’t Have Time to Tell You.”
A screening of a clip from the upcoming BET News special, “Heart in the City: Dying to Eat in Jackson,” laid the groundwork for the discussion. Dr. Braithwaite stated sobering statistics including the whopping $147 billion spent in 2008 on treating obesity-related illnesses. While only 13 percent of the U.S. population is Black, approximately 35 percent of African Americans are obese, with 23 percent categorized as morbidly obese.
“When you look at the obituary column, you don’t see ‘so-and-so died of obesity,’” said Dr. Braithwaite. “You see that they died of a stroke or heart attack, when in fact, many of these people are obese.”
While the numbers were grim, the panel’s discourse remained earnest and hopeful. Ex-NFL player Jamie Dukes lost four teammates to diabetes, stroke and other illnesses before he turned his focus on his own obesity. The fear that he would leave his family fatherless ultimately led him to seek a medical solution in the form of the increasingly popular Realize Band.
While surgery remains a viable option for some, the panel addressed the larger issue of the perception of weight in the Black community. Dr. Gibbs pointed out the cultural stigma in West Indian cultural of being perceived as too skinny, while Floyd spoke about a friend’s reaction to the doctor telling her she was obese.
“I had never really thought about what it meant to be obese,” Floyd recalled her friend saying. “I told her, ‘what are you talking about, you look great,’ not realizing that there were certain parameters to this.”
Education and action, the panel concluded, were the keys to shrinking the levels of obesity. The statistics are alarming within the Black community, prompting many to call for community-level aid and programs. But Roy S. Johnson, editor in chief of Men’s Fitness, stressed the importance of individual accountability.
“I love the empowering of our community and I let people know that this is the one thing that you can control,” Johnson shared. “If there’s anyone in your life that you love, don’t you want to be around as long as you can be for them? Just look at your kids, look at your spouse, your friends and family. You don’t just owe it to them, you owe it to yourself to live the best life you can possibly live.”
Watch “Heart of the City: Dying to Eat in Jackson,” a BET News exclusive hosted by Star Jones. It airs Sunday at 10 p.m./9C on BET.