The youth of today could be the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
Anyone who’s seen a news report about the childhood obesity epidemic has heard this statistic. In my family, this isn’t just a grim prediction. It’s already happened. My maternal grandmother died at age 76—nearly 20 years younger than her mother was when she died. All but one of my grandmother’s half-dozen siblings suffered the same fate. My great uncle just died last week. He was in his 90s. Unlike many of his siblings, he wasn’t overweight and didn’t suffer from obesity-related conditions such as diabetes. That disease led to my grandmother’s demise. It’s a disease that’s stricken my mother and her brothers and sisters as well. It’s a disease they may have avoided if they’d managed their weight better. But the number of overweight people in my family far outnumbers the healthy-weight people in my family. In fact, I’m one of the few thin people among my relatives.
The black community leads the nation in obesity, with 49.5 percent of African Americans suffering from the condition compared to 39.1 percent of Hispanics and 34.3 percent of whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Given this and the fact that my family members are concentrated in the Midwest and the South, the two regions in the United States with the highest obesity rates, it’s not necessarily jaw dropping that I’m one of the rare thin people in my family. Still, my relatives behave as if my slimness amazes them. When I visit from the West Coast, they never fail to comment on my build. My closest family members always insist on knowing what my dress size is and how much I weigh. They’ve held up my wrists to marvel at their slightness and were floored when I disclosed my ring size after my now husband proposed three years ago. It’s as if they can’t believe they’re related to someone with a normal BMI.
I’m not exactly sure why I’m thin and they’re overweight. Like my mother’s side of the family, my father is also overweight and has high blood pressure and diabetes. He was thinner as a young man, though, and his relatives are thinner overall than my maternal relatives. That could be because my paternal relatives are Nigerian and regularly eat foods such as plantains, yams and tomato stew. I’ve often wondered if rates of obesity and diabetes would drop among blacks in the U.S. if their diets consisted mostly of foods native to West Africa rather than today’s high-fat Western diet.
Because my parents are divorced and I grew up with my American relatives, my size can’t be blamed on a diet of West African foods. Instead, I think I’ve maintained a healthy weight as a direct result of watching my family members struggle with theirs. I’ve strived to avoid their fate, much like the children of alcoholics avoid drinking to elude substance abuse. In addition to the diabetes, hypertension and joint problems I saw relatives develop, I also witnessed some of them battle depression because they simply couldn’t keep the pounds off, no matter how many diets or weight-loss programs they tried.
This is where the fat acceptance movement comes in. When I was growing up, no one had heard of this movement that targets size discrimination and aims to combat the shaming, hatred and disrespect of overweight and obese people. Moreover, activists in the movement say all individuals can aim to be healthy regardless of size and don’t need to try an endless parade of diets. In fact, some studies have indicated that overweight people who eat healthy diets and exercise regularly are healthier than thinner people with poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles. I wish I could say this is the case in my family, but it’s not. Many of my relatives are inactive and harbor misconceptions about diet, weight and exercise that adversely affect their health. They’re not overweight because they live in food deserts or in neighborhoods where gyms are anomalies and exercising outside is too dangerous. They’re overweight, in part, because they believe the following:
- Regular exercise is excessive.
- Thin people don’t need to exercise.
- It’s OK for grown folks to be heavy.
- Processed foods are better than the real thing.
- Thin people must have eating disorders.
- Thin people are that way naturally.
In recent months, three different relatives have discouraged me from exercising. One said that I don’t need to exercise because I’m already thin. I explained that everyone needs exercise, no matter their weight, but I doubt my words sunk in. Other relatives suggested that I exercise too much, even though they don’t live on the same coast as I do and have no idea how much I exercise. I work out on average four times per week for 45 minutes. That’s in line with the American Heart Association’s recommendation that adults exercise five days a week for 30 minutes or for at least 150 minutes weekly. Sadly, only 3.5 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 59 actually get the recommended amount of exercise, according to the New York Times.
It’s not just attitudes about exercise that have proved harmful to my relatives, but also attitudes about weight. When I saw a cousin in Chicago this past summer, she suggested that it was OK for me to get heavier because of my age. I’m in my 30s. Apparently that gives me a green light to pack on some pounds. While one’s metabolism slows down with age, causing weight gain in many people, that’s not license for a woman at a healthy weight in her 30s to balloon in size.
I’ve also clashed with my relatives about processed foods. Given that I spent most of my 20s eating out and didn’t start cooking regularly until my 30s, I’m far from uptight about processed foods. I understand that they’re convenient. But even when the real thing is readily available and easy to prepare, my relatives insist on using the processed brands of fruits, grains and vegetables, which are often packed with sodium and do no favors for their blood pressure.
My family members also have the idea that thin people must be starving themselves to get that way. One relative expressed surprise after seeing me eat at a family gathering. He was in awe that I eat normal portions of food because he thinks thinness and food deprivation go hand in hand. I not only eat normal food portions, I occasionally overeat or eat unhealthful foods such as candy, cookies or cupcakes. Many dietitians say you can get away with eating whatever you want for one day a week as long as you eat healthfully the rest of the time.
Arguably the worst misconception I’ve heard both relatives and non-relatives utter about weight is that thin people must be that way naturally. Obviously some thin people achieve a slender size without much effort, but I do have to watch what I eat and exercise to maintain a healthy weight. The idea that thin people are just lucky that way is especially harmful given that the flip side of this statement suggests that overweight people are just unlucky that way. Are some people genetically prone to weighing more than others? Of course. But I doubt half of the African-American population is genetically programmed to be obese.
If attitudes about food and weight don’t change, it’s quite possible that the youth of today will suffer higher rates of obesity than their parents and grandparents and develop medical conditions that will shorten their life expectancy. In my family I know that longevity is possible. Not only did my great uncle and great-grandmother live until their 90s, my great-great grandfather lived past 100. In contrast, members of my generation and my mother’s may not even reach their 80s. The battle of the bulge doesn’t have to be a losing fight. Changing our thoughts on diet and exercise is the surest way to stop obesity from stealing years of our lives.