Studying Black Women and Obesity

by Niema Jordan

One-third of Americans are obese, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and researchers at Boston University (BU) are working to understand why and what can be done. BU has published a four-part series that discusses a special project out of Boston University’s School of Public Health called the Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS).

Why is there a special project dedicated to Black Women? Well, because African-American women in the U.S. have the highest rate of obesity in the nation. Since 1995 BWHS has studied the lives and habits of 59,000 Black women in hopes of understanding the disparity and the tools to help Black women as a whole live healthier lives.

“Our study is really trying to make a difference,” says Julie Palmer, who is the senior epidemiologist at Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center and coordinator of BWHS. “It is pure research, but it is research with a heart. We want it to lead to changes in individual behaviors, changes in medical practitioners’ recommendations, and changes at the highest policy levels that will help all of us have better health.”

One of the things the study pays attention is what actions towards better health are actually possible for women. Noting that everyone may not have access to gyms, they’ve looked at the impact of walking briskly and how that can be factored into everyday live.

The studying has also looked at how factors such as food, breastfeeding and education level play into obesity among Black Women.

For more information on the Black Women’s Health Study, click here.

  • Keepitreal

    This is sad but the damage can be undone with education and shift in attitudes toward obesity or so called thickness in our community. We can do this sisters!

  • Mike

    The biggest problem is all of these young black girls over 200 pounds. I’m sorry, but if you’re in your teens or 20′s and no kids you shouldn’t weigh over 160/170 max. I look at these Soul Train videos from the 60′s and early 70s and it’s shocking how small these young women are compared to this current group of young women.


    LOL at studies to figure out what can be done… How’s about lay off the McDonald’s dollar menu, stop venerating the image of “Big Mama”, and stop cooking/eating all that “traditional Soul Food”???

    Eating healthy isn’t as hard as people try to make it seem. People claim that a healthy lifestyle is expensive… Well, perhaps if you sacrificed getting your hair/nails done, and spending money on $500 purses, you’d have the money to spend on a proper diet.

    Being healthy is nobody’s responsibility by your own. Your body is the one thing that you have absolute control over. Stop playing victim.

  • Ms. Information

    I think that there are MANY factors to the weight that we have accumulated….depression (which is often swept under the rug), poverty, lack of income (extra money for the gym), unsafe neighborhoods (who wants to walk in a place that you may get robbed?), underdeveloped neighborhoods ( no sidewalks to walk on) as well as learned behavior (eating soul food). There are so many factors to black women gaining weight, including being the only race of women that head their households. Most other households are led by men in other races…black women have a lot on their shoulders…these are not excuses though.. just some possible reasons to the excess weight.

  • Sasha

    I’d be interested to see the results of this study. I don’t care to hear for the “why”, I feel like everyone under the sun knows the “why” so hopefully the study of this focus will be the “what” can be done.

  • Sasha

    I’m curious as to hear your reason as to how exactly black women leading the household has a negative effect on her weight? I mean they may have to work more hours to make more money to suppliment their income that they necessarily wouldn’t have to if a husband was in the picture but in most household, its women that do the cooking and grocery shopping. So wouldn’t that mean they have more control over the food thats coming into their household and is being prepared? I’m with you on everything else and agree that they are possible reasons, not excuses but this one has me scratching my chin.

  • Ms. Information

    Well maybe the stress? I would think that taking care of the household alone would have to be a stressor. Who would have time to workout if you work, clean, take care of kids, pay bills, et cetera alone? I think workouts fall by the wayside on the list of priorities….I’m certainly not saying that I am right, I just think that it is something to look at.

  • Ms. Information

    That’s true…I wonder if they would be honest with us about it though….I don’t know how much I trust these “studies” where whites always come out on top.

  • omfg

    ms information you come up with the most bizarre explanation of things sometimes. neighborhoods without sidewalks? being head of household as a contributor to obesity?

    that’s truly original. i mean, seriously.

    most blacks live in urban areas and these are the areas most likely to have sidewalks precisely because they have undergone development – it is the city.

    and being head of household doesn’t contribute to anything. if you wanna say it contributes to stress, well, then the factor to focus on is stress which has been linked to weight gain. but black women have lots of stressors.

    the main reason black women are fat is because we have a culture of being permissive and accepting of fatness.

    besides having a diet of real food and lots of vegetables, one of the reasons why asians (men and women) are not fat is because culturally it is simply unacceptable. in many of their cultures, something is wrong with you if you’re fat. it is totally frowned upon.

  • Sasha

    Mmkay got it, I understand the stress but even in two parent households there is still stress involved and excercise still isn’t a priority for some. I think there are numerous reasons that should be evaluated and discussed but at the end of the day none of that matters because it all boils down to what we choose to make priorities. Its strange to me that some people catch every reality tv show thats on or sitcom they follow religiously without ever missing an episode however in the same breath claim there isn’t enough time in the day to workout. I don’t watch tv and am exhausted when I get off work BUT I have a serious fear of being fat/ obese so I am in the gym relgiously and watch what I eat. Being healthy and thin is a priorioty for me but that may not be the case for some people however I think its ingenuine to act as if there are so many obstacles that prevent other Black women from being healthy.

  • Ms. Information

    @ omfg, how does that not make sense? A woman with 3 children and no one to help her works ALL day, tends to 3 children (homework, cleaning, cooking), pays light, rent, gas, electric, daycare, car, insurance by herself without the aid of a partner and this wouldn’t stress someone out? She wouldn’t be tired? She wouldn’t reach for whatever junk food to comfort her stress? I live in a middle class neighborhood of mostly blacks, we have NO sidewalks, drive 15 minutes up the street where whites live and there are LIT sidewalks up and down the streets. Did you not read the “learned behavior” part of my explanation? Learned behavior lends itself to the cultural part of what you say….

  • Ms. Information

    @ Sasha, I agree with you, the bottom line is personal choice…I am not defending being fat (I walk EVERYDAY and I am a vegetarian) I am just saying that other women who may be overweight certainly have individual reasons as to why that results in the collective weight gain that we have seen over the past couple of years. I am not co-signing on it, there just has to be other factors contributing to it.

  • jamesfrmphilly

    fruits, nuts, grains and vegetables…..

  • Keepitreal

    Must be some sort of conspiracy or something. I remember the same thing being said about the OOW numbers years ago.

  • jamesfrmphilly

    “your body is the one thing that you have absolute control over”

    i wish that were true……but i do battle with mine daily

  • Val


    There are conspiracies and there is fulfilling prophecies. Lot’s of times these studies are not true initially. Then they are reported in the media as fact and repeated for years on end. At that point many people believe whatever the results of said studies to be fact and then internalize those attributes and act them out.

    I believe out-of-wedlock births fall into this category. As well obesity amongst some populations of Black women.

  • Ms. Information

    Hey Val, thank you for articulating that better for me :)

  • Agnes

    There is nothing bizarre about connecting pervasive economic inequality in the US and the obesity epidemic in the US. The fact is that when it comes to the discourse of obesity among black women you cannot understate the role of socioeconomic status and food insecurity. The fact is African American are disproportionately low income in this country. In addition, single parent homes tend to be low income and thus in this country tend to be headed by women, and tend to be disproportionately black.

    As Ms. Information stated, being able exercise and eat right in these times is increasingly becoming a privilege. It is a privilege that is indicative of time, money (because lets face it fruits and vegetables are not cheap), and education– all of which can be lacking in low income homes. For a lot of black women food can be a coping mechanism to deal with the stressors of life.

    Also we need to consider the political economy of food distribution. Many disadvantaged, high risk neighborhoods are inundated with convenient stores, KFCs, Mcdonalds etc– communities of color are specifically targeted by these companies, something you don’t see in overwhelmingly white communities.

    I am by no means trying to completely discount the power of personal choice and agency here. I just think that if something is going to be done that is both effective and sustainable, we need to pay special attention to the structural inequities that constrain people’s ability to make healthy choices.

  • Beautiful Mic

    We need more accessible clean food.

  • Beautiful Mic

    Raw and organic fruits, nuts, grains and vegetables

  • Val

    @Ms Information

    Thanks, no problem. And I agree with you that stress is a major contributing factor for obesity.

  • binks

    I get what you saying on wanting results but everybody knowing “why” is not necessarily true. Most people who are obese don’t know why they eat the why do they because it is usually mask. Most people think weight loss is mostly physically when in fact the success to losing weight is MOSTLY mental. Weather most people realize it or not but many use food as a temporarily relief or as a suppression for other issues whether it is external issues i.e. stress, work, family, etc. or internal issues i.e. low self-esteem, depression, etc. Because let’s be honest if you want to lose weight and eat healthy you can, there is no excuse not too. You don’t have to break the bank to buy healthy foods and if you want to exercise you don’t need the gym to do it there are many exercise tutorials, programs, regimens, groups on youtube, online, in your surrounding community, etc. that you can do on your own without the access of the gym that it isn’t funny. I agree we need to focus on the “what” but their needs to be an assessment on the individual on “why” they are the way you are instead of a general “why”

  • cb

    @jamesfrmphilly, only if there is access to it

  • Chillyroad

    Ms Information

    Being fat is stressful and nothing relieves stress better than working out.

  • Ms. Information

    @ Chilly…..I agree….BUT many people reach for donuts and cheeseburgers to relieve stress…I agree..and I exercise everyday…

  • P

    The bottom line is regardless of what is going on around you — don’t ever jeopardize your health and make it YOUR #1 priority above everything. I agree with Mike, our mother’s generation (in their 20’s) were smaller and they had families (husbands). Some women 35+ thru their early 40’s look younger than these girls in their late 20’s now. It is about choices and what you value most. I think a lot of married women or single mothers have their priorities jumbled. By placing their families first, they think this is the best method. In actuality, it is truly the opposite. Exercise and eating healthier will provide ample energy to spend time/engage in fun activities with their families hence less tired/more happier.

    We can do better. Even if our circumstances are different, I believe there is solution. I love encouraging other s to at least try; however, for some women I do have to provide toughlove. In some situations, enough is enough. Once they reach their goal and become healthier, they’ll appreciate it.

  • omfg

    ms information,

    i feel like everything is always about making excuses or coming up with reasons for a black person not doing or getting certain things.

    in this case, it’s all of these variables that somehow are specific to black women only.

    i never worked out in a gym growing up and i grew up in govt subsidized housing in south l.a.

    but you know what? i was raised to value food differently. there was a plaque in my kitchen that said, “those who indulge bulge”. my mother, a single mother with no advanced education, cooked real meals for us. fast food was something i got when i did well on a report card and i could pick where to eat. we ate wheat not white bread. we hardly drank soda. i was not allowed to have sugary cereals. i often ate oatmeal for breakfast. btw, this way of eating is cheaper.

    in our household, being fat was never viewed as a cool or attractive or healthy state to be in.

    this is not about gyms and money and sidewalks. what you’re talking about is a total cop-out and a set of excuses anybody can come up with. this is about values and information and discipline and the desire to change/improve your life.

    if my mother can raise me to have solid values when it comes to this then others can too.

    stop coddling black people about this issue. it is not something that cannot be rectified by correcting behaviour.

    depression runs in my family. i know that and i make sure i eat decently and workout – both things have been shown to improve mood and combat depression.

  • jamesfrmphilly

    @cb : are you saying black women are fat because they cannot find any fruits and veggies? really?

  • Kay

    Not every Black woman who is struggling with her weight gets their hair and nails done and spends money on $500 purses. Lord knows I and my friends don’t, and I’ve gained a considerable amount of weight due to a high risk pregnancy. I am now trying to bounce back. Now that I live in the suburbs, I see stores that sell many of the items I had to travel miles to get when I was living in the city.

    There’s a real issue with access to food, and how companies are cutting back by replacing good nutritious ingredients with additives. I eat right, exercise daily, and I am STILL trying to lose the weight. It’s even worse if you don’t have access to things like fresh veggies, tofu and a doctor. Imagine if you are a Black woman with no insurance who can’t see a doctor about an overactive thyroid. It’s not a stretch to think that this condition can lead to weight problems.

  • Kay

    Omfg, if you want to know about how sidewalks can have an effect on anything, you should check out a field of study called “New Urbanism,” and is all about how the structure of neighborhoods can lead to disinvestment, crime and personal detachment. New Urbanists talk alot about the “Walkability” of a neighborhood, including how streets can be structured to encourage or discourage interaction and civic interest. It’s an interesting field and I think that’s part of where Ms. Information is coming from.

  • Seriously?

    there need to be different type of people to represent what being healthy is. Straight up, I was raise in the hood and the girls and there moms the reason why a lot of them were fat not because they couldn’t afford to buy food, most were on section 8 working under the table and getting food stamps, but because they were lazy. Then you get a motivational speaker who talks about how its important to eat healthy and exercise. To be quite honest the people I grew up around didn’t eat bad-they weren’t having soul food everyday but they didn’t exercise either. The same motivational speaker turns around and talks about how exercising can be de-stress someone.

    That ain’t true for everybody, ain’t true for me it’s a mental struggle even now for me to just get up and exercise is hard. I tried all kinds of “positive thinking” that crap dont work for me. You do it just because you need too. No other reason. I met far too many people who think that low weight size just not for them because “it’s Hard, they dont feel any less stressful or better” after working out. Then they start with the excuses of why they can’t exercise from not sweating out their perm to gyms being to expensive. If you want people to change gotta start at the root, their mental.

  • Ms. Information

    @ omfg…I think I mentioned that I was not coddling or promoting fat acceptance….for every action there is an opposite or equal reaction, that is all that I am addressing. I was raised just like you with a mother that cooked..we were very active outside of school and in school……do you know that there are schools in Georgia who completely cut their exercise and PE programs? Kids don’t even get to play outside like we used to because the atmosphere has changed….I am just saying there are factors to behavioral changes, not saying anything is wrong or right…I am also glad that you can cope with your depression with exercise, many Americans (black, white or otherwise) have shown that they cannot.

  • victoria

    When you dont have access to affordable fresh foods, it’s important to eat still eat vegetables- frozen is best, but can may have to do. No one gets fat off of canned vegetables. Eat less fattening foods. Nix fast food, dring more water, walk in you neighborhood or the school track. Eat smaller portions. Have a sandwich, fruit, water, and a small sweet for lunch instead of a dinner style meal. Eat more baked foods and side salad. Give your child an apple as a snack not hostess cupcakes. There are ways to lose weight without making drastic changes

  • omfg


    honestly, i don’t care about all of the high level reasons you or academics or planners come up with to explain away our weight/health issues.

    even if a sidewalk were the problem, what are people supposed to do? wait until a developer/city/county/state entity decides to build a sidewalk to get their health issues under control? that’s not information that someone on the ground can immediately use to change anything. it’s pontification on the latest american thinking about community development.

    i lived in an urban area (most of them do have sidewalks, lol) but where i grew up, i never went outside because of gang violence, drugs, etc. i wouldn’t walk on those sidewalks. but, values were instilled in me that dictated my behaviour while I was there and now that I’m not.

    IMO, any rationale that doesn’t lead to telling people to wrestle control of their health is victim reasoning. period.

    black people need to be empowered and believe they can change this. we don’t need anymore victim mentality.

  • __A

    Yes. A lot of older black women were smaller in their younger days. Now we have overweight children who go on to become “thick.” Then they write articles saying that their husbands like them fat or that black women are meant to be overweight.

    With these overweight children, I look at the parents! Parents really need to do better these days. They let their kids watch all kinds of crap on TV and let them put whatever they want into their mouths. When I was in elementary school, the majority of black girls were skinny. When I was in middle school, the majority of black girls were skinny or average sized. When I was in high school, the girls were skinny and average sized. I don’t buy this bull that black women just are naturally big. Some BW have more hips and butt than other women. I’ve seen these women when they were teens and in their 20s and 30s. They were average sized women with hips and butt. Not fat!

    These girls overeat plain and simple. They don’t get enough exercise to work it off. They need to eat smaller portion sizes. Americans weren’t in the gym for hours a day to stay in shape before when they were thin. I think it had something to do with their diet and activity level.

    And when you look at women who are considered thick by men such as Bria Myles or someone, these women look nothing like the everyday women who consider themselves “thick.” A lot of these curvaceous models may not look like the thin soul train models, but they have waists and work out to stay in shape. They are considered desirable.

    I see these girls walking around overweight and think about how they will have to struggle with their weight. I blame the parents for not teaching them as children self-control or giving them large portions.

  • Ek

    @ SMH: wow, i’m so happy that most of you are perfect people who eat perfectly and exercise perfectly and have the perfect weight and so judge people who are fat! In our society, no one would willingly CHOOSE to be fat and so if someone is, maybe they are having a hard time doing the right thing that would make them healthy? it may seem so easy to you but to a 400 pound woman, it may appear to be a mountain she can’t surmount (it’s not impossible but it may SEEM impossible to her). an unhealthy lifestyle easily becomes a cycle such that it becomes hard (not impossible) to break. my friend is seriously obese and i always empathize with her, support her and show her tough love to help her lose weight rather than judging her. and guess what, the love worked and she’s started getting healthier and even lost some weight! i bet you also judge drug addicts, alcoholics and anyone with any addictions they’re struggling with because you have no weakness whatsoever. good for you my dear!

  • shal1987

    I’m sorry, I’m so sick of the excuses people have for being obese.
    I mean it’s getting ridiculous at this point. If someone has a genuine desire
    To be healthy they will make a way to do it. As mentioned above black
    Women are the head of households taking care of kids, housework and working.
    Believe it or not, housework can be exercise. Sweeping the floor or vacuuming
    Can be great alternative to working out at a gym. Also for those with children,
    Go outside and play with them . It could be as simple playing tag, just chasing your
    Kids around is burning calories. Having the gym and nutritionist is a luxury for the
    Wealthy but for those who don’t fall into that category IMPROVISE.
    When it comes to diet, start implementing alternatives to things that you would normally cook .
    For example, simple dinner can be subsititued such as ground beef for ground turkey or
    oven fried chicked over stove fried . I mean being healthy is a lifestyle change that doesn’t
    happen over night but if you have access to Face book then you can simply google info
    on having a healthier lifestyle and nutrition. Come on Black women we are so much better than this we need to let go of the excuses and get moving

  • Pam

    Loving your comment.

  • omfg

    i don’t think i said i suffered from depression. i said it runs in my family and i exercise and eat well to be healthy body, mind and soul even when crap comes my way.

    also, most americans do not exercise enough or eat decently enough to even determine whether or not a change in lifestyle will help their depression or whatever issue they are being confronted by.

  • Ravi

    I think stress, poverty effects, and depression make a lot more sense than blaming lack of cultural unacceptability. I don’t believe that there is any uniformity of obesity acceptance within the black community. Most every obese black person I know or have heard of has caught hell for being obese. A young black girl growing up 70 or 80 pounds overweight has to endure a lot of negativity. I’m not seeing a whole lot of embracing of obesity.

    Regardless, these reasons are not excuses. It’s hard to come up with a workable solution without understanding the underlying causes and factors that lead to the problem. I don’t think you are going to come up with a workable situation with increasing the fat shaming. A better angle would be to tackle some of the factors that Ms. Information talks about and trying to mitigate them.

  • Barbara2

    I had an ESSENCE magazine subscription at the time they asked Black women to particcipate in this once in a life time health study mention. I’m still a participate in the study (BWHS).

    Over the years, I dutifully completed the surveys sent to us. I attended events for this study. At the events, I noticed the facilitators always had accents–from the Caribbean or Africa. So, I tried to get information on what Black women were part of the story. No luck. I began to believe that the White woman who started this study convinced a Black woman from Howard University to join her (to legitemize) so she could get government funding and add to her own requirement of faculty padding the University coffers.

    To make a long story short…Black women from other parts of the world have different diets from my Soul Food diet. (I eat Soul Food all the time, and I’m not fat. It’s a matter of portions).

    This BWHS is no different from the so-call study about Black women having 70% Babies out of wedlock. It’s not accurate. As for the out of wedlock babies, there ISN’T any difference in what Black women have been doing throughout our history. The difference is in the “method of reporting” the government now uses. Our greatest out of wedlock babies were during slavery and post slavery, and Jim Crow. Today, the more educated Black women are having “fewer children, while the less educated BW are doing what they have always done.

    Don’t pay serious attention to all these studies coming out. Black women are being talked about and studied to death in reent years. I, for one, am sick and tired of it.

  • Marles

    Sorry, but last time I checked light jogging up and down a staircase, push ups, squats, crunches, etc. were free. It doesn’t get any cheaper than that. We need to stop with the excuses that healthy living is a privilege. That is absurd. It is much more accurate to say it’s a choice that has to be made a priority. I don’t understand why we refuse to account for a very serious reason why many black women are overweight/obese. Perhaps it’s difficult to admit to ourselves but let’s face it: many of us are just plain lazy and apathetic about our health. Being healthy is a conscious choice we have to make for ourselves. It doesn’t matter how much (or little) money you have, losing weight works the same way for everyone – calories in/calories out. If you’re stressed, you don’t have to eat a family-sized bag of chips when cheap apples are available. You don’t have to turn into that fast food drive-thru either. 

    How many mores times are we going to say we’re too poor, too tired, too stressed, too busy, too pressed for time, too single, too ridden with or by XYZ health/socio-economic issue, or essentially just too black to be healthy before we own up to our lack of food discipline, decide to make conscious health choices for ourselves/our families, and take an honest look at the most basic factor in weight – what we put in our mouths? 

    If maintaining your hairstyle is more important to you than achieving/maintaining a healthy weight through regular exercise, what’s stopping you from preparing healthy meals for the week over your weekends off from work? Or if time is such an issue, why can’t that hour you spend watching your can’t-miss reality shows 3-4 nights a week, also be the hour you spend on the floor doing sit ups, jumping jacks, etc. Stop living through convenience and excuse, and start living by consciousness and discipline.

  • Marles

    Sorry, but last time I checked light jogging up and down a staircase, push ups, squats, crunches, etc. were free. It doesn’t get any cheaper than that. No gym required. We need to stop with this idea that healthy living is a privilege. That is absurd. It is conscious choice that has to be made a priority. It doesn’t matter how much (or little) money you have or how dark (or light) your skin is, losing weight works the same way for everyone – calories in/calories out. If you’re stressed, you don’t have to eat a family-sized bag of chips when cheap apples are available. You don’t have to turn into that fast food drive-thru either. I don’t understand why we refuse to account for a very serious reason why many black women are overweight/obese. Perhaps it’s difficult to admit to ourselves, but let’s face it: many of us are just plain lazy and apathetic about our health. 

    How many mores times are we going to say we’re too poor, too tired, too stressed, too busy, too pressed for time, too single, too ridden with or by XYZ health/socio-economic issue, and essentially just too black to be healthy or lose weight before we own up to our lack of food discipline, decide to make conscious health choices for ourselves/our families, and take an honest look at the most basic factor in weight – what and how much we put in our mouths?  

    If maintaining your hairstyle is more important to you than achieving/maintaining a healthy weight through regular exercise, what’s stopping you from at least preparing inexpensive, healthy meals for the week over your weekends off from work? Or if time is such an issue, why can’t that hour you spend watching your can’t-miss reality shows 3-4 nights a week, also be the hour you spend on the floor doing sit ups, jumping jacks, etc? If you frequently watch beauty tutorials on YouTube, why can’t you just as easily subscribe to a fitness guru or two and begin an at-home workout regimen? Stop living through convenience and excuses, black women, and start living by consciousness and discipline. We are so much better than this, and we are just as worthy and capable of being healthy as anyone else. 

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