By Maitefa Angaza
By now we’ve all heard that African Americans, and Black people overall, comprise the vast majority of cases of COVID-19 across the United States. The reasons cited — not that we didn’t know — are the high levels of life-threatening illnesses, healthcare disparities, income inequality, racism and stress we endure. Symptomatic of all of these is obesity. When the stress piles on, most people tend to overeat. Because we’ve been traumatized and victimized since the first boat landed on these shores with stolen human cargo, stress is an inherited risk factor for Black lives.
Of course, obesity was not prevalent among enslaved Africans, most working long days of hard physical labor, sweating under a relentless sun. But after Reconstruction, when most Black people worked under less arduous conditions, they still confronted violence and institutional/everyday racism. Obesity rose as varieties of food were more available and were used to ease depression and terror. Today numbers are stratospheric in areas of the nation that are not pedestrian-friendly, but fast-food-friendly. It’s also a problem in cities with endless sidewalks for exercise, but ever-present access to processed foods. Obesity causes and/or exacerbates hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other ailments common among the Black population. And as these diseases make us vulnerable targets for a destruction-ready COVID-19, we must begin to take obesity more seriously and advocate for greater numbers of people successfully overcoming it.
For clarifying context from the National Institute of Health:
“While obesity is a serious health issue in and of itself, it is also associated with a host of adverse proximal and distal health outcomes, including high cholesterol and hypertension, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, as well as breast, colorectal, and other cancers.
“Obesity is also associated with diagnosable mental disorders, including depression; the leading cause of disability and premature mortality in the United States. Research indicates that people with diagnosable mental disorders like depression are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease and other physical health conditions because of a higher prevalence of and inadequate attention to modifiable risk factors such as being overweight and obese.”
Statistics show that 80% of Black women are obese — the highest rate in the U.S. In 2018 our sisters were 50 percent more likely than non-Hispanic white women to be obese. In fact, four out of five Black women are overweight, if not obese. Some may not believe the standard assessment of overweight applies to Black women, who tend to have more curves and padding. But we must be honest as to what constitutes a threat. When breathing and mobility are compromised, when diseases are attacking or incipient, we can readily see how much weight is too much.
Nutrition education and other outreach programs are available, many free of charge. There is simple-to-process information that can aid in the battle— the type of battle in which allies are critical. Participants in these programs can learn, for example, about what defines and distinguishes obesity. Although excess body fat is most often responsible for overweight, other factors, such as water-weight, heavier bones and extra muscle can be contributing factors. Obesity, however, is almost exclusively due to excess fat.
The emergency alert is not for women alone, of course. Childhood obesity is at record levels, with Black students about 65 percent more likely to be obese than white students. And all members of a household can model for and support one another. Weight control can no longer be seen as an avoidable nuisance; COVID-19 has made that clear. Obesity often makes the difference between those who survive the coronavirus and those who succumb, because the severity of the virus’ impact is heightened by obesity’s pre-existing illnesses.
We are constantly being told to stay home and stay safe. It would be wise to expand that edict by making sure to eat healthy while at home and to exercise regularly. As we approach the end of quarantine, let’s make healthy lifestyle a habit we can keep.
A campaign to address childhood obesity in the city was established last year, with Central Brooklyn as one of the areas of focus. Pediatric health care providers were outfitted with Pediatric Obesity Action Kits to share with and counsel patients. When institutions reopen, inquire about free obesity programs at the YMCA, New York Presbyterian Hospital in Brooklyn, etc. Give them some time to get their full roster of programs up and running, but in the meantime we can get up and running, or walking, or stepping, to be ready to take full advantage of supportive programs.