Obesity and Race in the United States

Dr. Jeffrey Heit Health Guide November 20, 2008
  • With a historic presidential election now behind us, having elected the first African American to the White House, one would hope that disparities regarding race will slowly become a thing of the past. One area where there is an alarming disparity in the U.S. is the obesity epidemic, especially among women.

     

    By some estimates, over half of all African American women are considered overweight and a full 37% of them qualify as being obese (>30% above ideal body weight). Compare that with 24% of Caucasian women who are considered obese. It doesn't stop there, though. 33% of Mexican-American women are considered obese and American- Indian women are also more likely to be overweight.

     

    What gives? Why does this inequality exist? There are many theories, but no single explanation seems to answer all the questions sufficiently. Most point to the role of income, socioeconomics and education more than race itself. Many African American, Mexican-American and Indian-American women tend to fall into poorer, less educated socioeconomic strata. However, few studies have been done on obesity among poorer Caucasian women versus obesity in minority women.

     

    One hypothesis for the disparity is that poorer individuals are less likely to eat healthy foods and more likely to eat cheaper fast food alternatives. Anyone who has purchased fruits and vegetables at their local organic grocer knows produce is expensive- especially organic produce. It often costs money to eat healthily. Cheap calories tend to come in the form of fast food, candies, cakes, processed foods and the like. Other experts have postulated that poorer Americans tend to be more sedentary than their wealthier counterparts. If you're worried about putting any food on the table or making next month's rent, there may not be much in the way of disposable income or time to join or use a gym or health club. Any free time is spent on more immediate issues, like feeding the family, looking for a job or keeping children out of trouble.

     

    Also, as another one of my blogs points out, stress can lend itself to eating more unhealthy foods and weight gain. Poorer individuals with less education have been theorized to lead more stressful lives. While a significant number of these individuals tend to have jobs with a lot of responsibility, they tend to have less control over making changes or bettering their work environment and, hence, stress results. Of course, genetics is always implicated as a cause for obesity. Perhaps African American, Mexican-American and Indian-American women are genetically predisposed to be obese in addition to being more likely to have a lower income level.  

     

    No one knows any of these answers for sure, and it will take more research to solve some of these mysteries. Nonetheless, it is worth being aware of these discrepancies and creating ways to combat the obesity epidemic in these groups. Regardless of what political party is in power, more funding needs to be made available to research this aspect of the obesity epidemic. Given the current economic environment and ballooning budget deficit, there will be forces that wish to reign in government spending on obesity research. However tempting that may be to some, we must realize that the money we spend now, on researching causes and potential remedies for the obesity discrepancy, may be far less than the costs of caring for the complications of obesity in the coming years.