Of course my stomach would start growling as soon as I start to put my thoughts regarding food on paper. I stayed strong, though, and congratulated myself on a little victory. But as I prepared Tom and the crew for an interview with First Lady Michelle Obama about her new initiative to battle childhood obesity, I realized that little victory is part of a lifelong love/hate relationship with food.
In the good times and in the bad times, food always plays a starring role in my life. And I’m not alone. For most people – African-Americans especially – it’s part of our mourning process, relationship rituals and our meeting procedures.
Perfect example: If you went to – or hosted – a Super Bowl party on Sunday, then you know that the only thing second to having a decent sized television to watch the big game on was the menu. In fact, for some people there, the food was THE most important thing, and if it wasn’t on point, you were getting clowned by your guests during the car ride home.
It’s not a bad thing necessarily, but I think it becomes troublesome when we allow food to overshadow the real purpose of why we’re gathering. In other words, what would happen if we dared to take food out of the mix? I’ve been doing that lately – or at least trying to.
Now, I’m not talking about not eating, but just not letting food “consume” me; pardon the pun. Believe me when I say the hungry hearts club is a lonely place to be. People are very uncomfortable, annoyed and even suspicious of you if you choose not to eat at or attend an event because you’re just not that into food, or trying not to be, at least.
The idea of having large amounts of food at even the most mundane of occasions is relatively recent and ties into our country’s rise in obesity. Huge feasts were once relegated to Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners. Some families went hard every Sunday, but even that doesn’t compare with all the big-food opportunities we have now. Even movies are now so closely associated with food, some movie theaters are literally restaurants that happen to be showing a film.
Asking employees to go the extra mile without ordering a pizza is like slapping them in the face. Book club meetings, work meetings, dates and church meetings all are wrapped around food.
The women from Mt. Zion Church of God Holiness in Dayton, Ohio know this well. They were recently featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” after one member wrote in about her family’s history of diabetes and the unhealthy foods served at the church. Half of the church’s adult members are diabetic.
We know that as African-Americans, we are more susceptible to heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and certain kind of cancers that are linked to obesity. Much of the time, obesity – or a least the poor eating habits that will eventually lead to obesity – starts during childhood. Like their parents, kids think of every celebration, every movie, every sporting event, etc., as an opportunity to eat.
We can start doing better by making some of the small steps the First Lady threw out, like playing games outdoors with our kids or replacing the juice boxes in their lunches with a bottle of water. We can also turn the tide a little by having children’s parties that are more about fun activities like skating or bowling and less about food.
About 32 percent of children and adolescents are obese, putting them at risk for high cholesterol and diabetes.
Habits are hard to break. But they’re impossible to break if we don’t at least make an effort. And why not start at home, especially if you have kids?
Getting our children’s eating habits in check is probably one of the most important things we can do for not only their physical health but their mental health as well. We talk often about the physical ailments that can stem from carrying too much weight, but our children’s self-esteem and self-image suffer as well.
I know how much negative comments about my weight affected me when I was growing up. Most of the women on my mother’s side of the family are petite by anyone’s standards, so I was often teased for being larger than my cousins, even when they were much older than me. It had a profound effect on me, and the hurt feelings still pulse beneath the surface whenever we’re together. As an adult, I understand that they were not trying to be mean, but the six-year-old in me still needs a hug every once in awhile when I think about it.
So, not only was I appalled when a doctor informed me and my eight-year-old son that he was overweight – I was mad. No doubt, both of my sons are larger than most children their age, and although I don’t label it as hidden racism, I certainly don’t believe that I should make them fit in to the cookie-cutter European standards for height and weight. And even if weight was an issue for him, I certainly didn’t think he needed to hear it the way that he did.
So when the doctor said it a second time and laughingly told my child to leave the sweets alone, I was crushed and – with the risk of sounding dramatic – saddened as I watched just a little bit of sorrow leave as the hurt and doubt crept in. My heart breaks all over again when, months later, he still asks whether or not I think he should be on a diet.
And for our beautiful little girls, it’s even worse.
Recent medical findings have suggested that black women are 50 percent more likely to suffer from bulimia nervosa than white women are, that poor women are more likely to experience bulimia than rich girls are and that bulimia affected 1.5 percent of girls in households where at least one parent had a college degree.
Our lives and our kids’ lives could depend on us getting our stuff together. We can hope that the government, food makers and schools make adjustments, but in the end, it’s up to individual parents and the examples we set.
If food is in center of everything we do, how can we give it less importance?
Instead of meeting your girls for lunch, how about meeting them for a walk or for a pedicure? Instead of celebrating a job change with big a lunch or dinner, how about a visit to a nice day spa? Instead of rewarding our own accomplishments with comfort food, how about buying a good book or a pair of shoes?
If you’ve figured out some helpful, healthy hints that have made a difference, share your ideas. I can’t be the only mom who has gone to bed with feelings of guilt for letting my six-year-old have a Lunchable for dinner. (Just once, I promise.) Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative – check out her interview with in “If You Missed It” – should be a wake-up call for us all. I don’t know about you, but I doubt if my boys will ever inherit huge amounts of money and property. But what I can leave them is the tools for having a healthy body, mind and soul. That’s priceless.