Black Americans Needs the Church to Tackle Obesity

I grew up in the church.  And not any church, but the southern black church: the centerpiece of black culture and community.  Through trials and tribulations, it has stood the test of time serving its community by providing a space for both faith and blackness. 

The black church was key during the Civil Rights movement.  Church leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and churches like  Brown Chapel AME Church lead the way for black rights.

Fast forward to 2019, and the black church is  very much needed. Black Americans face racial disparities regarding finances, education, and especially our health. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, “African American women have the highest rates of [obesity] compared to other groups in the U.S.”

This statistic is also true for African American men who are at higher risk for stroke and heart attacks than white men. If churches are able to provide health and wellness resources, they can help aide the obesity crisis.

Black Americans suffering from obesity have a higher health risk

Obesity can increase your risk for COVID-19, diabetes, certain cancer, and stroke. In fact, Black Americans are more likely to die from obesity-related causes if they aren’t keeping their health in check. 

It is imperative we come together to tackle this disease. For some time, I have been thinking that the Black Church could be a viable solution to end obesity.  The idea sounds ridiculous, but according to at least one expert, my thought isn’t far off. 

Two months ago I found the article, “For Some, The Church is Good for the Soul But Not The Waistline”. I was ecstatic! It was one of the first articles I have read that put “faith and health together” rather than separate.

After reading the article, I decided to contact one of the writers from the original academic piece. I got in touch with Dr. Loneke Blackman Carr and she agreed to be interviewed. 

*Original study and academic journal: “Investigating Denominational and Church Attendance Differences in Obesity and Diabetes in Black Christian Men and Women” — in the Journal of Religion and Health. Download link here → <3 *

Dr. Blackman Carr on studying health in African American communities

Dr. Blackman Carr is an Assistant Professor of Community and Public Health Nutrition at the University of Public Health at Connecticut. Dr. Carr’s area of study is black women’s health ‘specifically black women’s weight’ and what that means for their health.

“It is the duty of researchers to go and get people who represent the variety in the US. If we are going to solve health problems for everybody and not just one demographic”-

This area of study is crucial. Collectively, lifestyle changes and health programs do not work as well for black women as they do for white women. “Historically, the foundation and research of study for health and wellness programs were traditionally based [off of white] samples,” says Dr. Blackman Carr. 

The  issue is black women (and surely) black men as well, “were never included and always categorized as hard to reach populations”: “It truly is a misnomer.”

She continues, “It is the duty of researchers to go and get people who represent the variety in the US. If we are going to solve health problems for everybody and not just one demographic.”  Fitness programs and wellness programs need to be diversified and inclusive, but first and foremost research sampling must include diverse populations.  

America’s unique racial history is also a factor, “There are totally different lived experiences in totally different neighborhoods. We are as segregated now as we were decades ago. Segregation persists; our neighborhoods are separate and unequal.” Not everyone has access to healthy produce and food resources. “Same when it comes to the ability to be active and exercise.”  

As Dr. Blackman Carr and I spoke, I began to see how and why obesity affects our community, but I also saw how the church could help.

The Interview:

Is obesity in the community a black racial issue or a black ethnicity issue?

There is  little attention given to ethnicity. African Americans having been here for generations verse immigrating from Africa or from the Caribbean. We have different experiences around food, culture, and activity.

In the article, you will see, Caribbeans have lower obesity rates than Black Americans. But when different ethnicities come to America and become acculturated, they have a higher risk of developing obesity.

 Do you think that African Americans should start taking this obesity epidemic more seriously?

Even in asking that question in that way says ‘it is a problem black people should know about it and they are choosing not to do anything about it or they are choosing to be obese’. That might now be how you meant it, but how we phrase a question is important.

Obesity is something that develops in people, but it is not because there is no will power or no motivation to eat healthy foods. What people eat is driven by what is in their  environment and that is usually not something they can control.

How does the environment play a role in the obesity epidemic for Black Americans?

Policy influences how the environment is shaped: what kind of stores can go where, where sidewalks go, and who is mandated to build a sidewalk. These things are outside the control of the individual, but underneath environmental layers, is still the individual, the family, and the community.

It is not solely up to the individual. If you travel a day in someone’s life and see what choices they had and didn’t have it might change our perspective. The neighborhood, what that looks like, public transportation, income, these things weave together to build our food environment.

For Black women, some of us feel BMI charts are discriminatory, how can we define health appropriately for Black Women? 

I will say this, BMI is misused widely and I think that is part of the problem. “BMI is supposed to be used to assess whole populations and whole communities. It was never supposed to be applied alone as the sole measurement of someone’s health.”  (Pull quote)

We have to measure other things; I would encourage everyone to know their hemoglobin A1C (a measure of blood sugar control for over 3 months). Look at blood fats and cholesterol– blood pressure. Know your family history– that can tell you what might be ahead.

How did the Black church become a focus in this study? 

There have been studies that have looked at other denominations within Christian faith and other faiths in regards to health. Those were done with mostly white populations. Within those white populations, they narrowed it down to Seventh Day Adventist, Baptist, and so on.

For black people that were assessed in those studies they categorized their faith as the ‘Black Church’ excluding other denominations. There is ethnicity in black people and in the black church. There is AME Zion, AME, Cogic, Episcopal,  Baptist, etc. There is very, very little research in regards to different denominations.

The PI of our research, Keshia Bently Edwards, thought, “why are we not looking within the black church, it is not one monolithic thing with no difference.” But for this paper, just getting our feet way, we looked at the faith groups that we have access to the data-set and that faith group was Christian. 

Could the church be the resource?

The church serves many social functions out of necessity. It was the one place where we could go to organize, support each other, and support our communities. Of course, we are past the most historic times (Civil Rights), but we still got a lot of work to do. We got issues and no one else is going to solve it for us.

The church is a point of resilience in the black community and any community that had to be resilient has found their own solutions. The resource depends on us and our community and our creativity– collective work to make things happen for us.

What is the next step?

The research from the academic journal was phase 1 looking at the hard numbers. The next step is going out to the community. Researchers in my field, have been working through the Black church for a decade. What we are looking at now is how Black churches as a whole and what denominations can actually do for Black Health.

If the church becomes healthier, do you think the community will become healthier?

The church is an important institution. They are also one large piece of a very large puzzle. They will continue to have an important role in the health of black communities, but they aren’t the only route to our health.  We need compliments to what the church is going to do, if real community wellness that we can see and feel is going to be realized.

 We also have to address the environment and the policy: segregation, income inequality, and wealth inequality. All of those things play into the health of any individual in the United States.

*Closing comments*

What I hope our work shows, things might operate differently depending on churches’ denominations.  That could be because of the type of doctrine that is at the church, and how much church leadership and members believe that the church should take actionable steps to include health-based programs.

I think that will happen on a denominational basis. It is possible that certain denominations may not be a great fit for these programs, but there is only one way to find out.

Final Recap and solutions in 2021 

Many states in the US are just now opening up again. Of course large gatherings are still not acceptable, but churches can find ways to promote healthy eating and wellness with online resources, email lists, and zoom meetings. As we move forward as a nation, we must adapt to Covid19 and we must strive to keep our congregations healthy and well. 

Post Updated on 2/25/2021

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