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Christianity, not vanity, at root of black women’s diet program

May 1, 2007 by  
Filed under News, Religion, Weekly Columns

(Akiit.com) HARTFORD, Conn. — The idea of strolling the beach in a bikini isn’t what motivates Sandra Mosby to bake her chicken rather than frying it, or to lightly season her collard greens rather than dropping in a fatty ham hock.

For Mosby and a growing number of black women, developing healthy habits and losing weight is less about satisfying her vanity and more about strengthening her Christianity.

Several recent studies throughout the U.S. have concluded that the all-about-you mentality of many mainstream diet programs doesn’t resonate with black women whose focus lies in strengthening their families, communities and churches.

Now, there’s a new approach: Rather than pushing black women to adapt to those programs, researchers are developing new programs that emphasize improving health as a pathway to better serving God.

“A lot of the existing weight-loss programs are designed and developed for typical middle-class white women,” said Judith Fifield, a professor in the University of Connecticut’s medical school at the UConn Health Center.

“A lot of the traditional weight-loss messages are, ‘It’s all about you,’ whereas a lot of African-American women are so committed to caring for their families and serving the church that they aren’t used to putting themselves first,” she said.

Mosby is a prime example. Juggling her college classes, close-knit family and involvement at Bethel A.M.E. Church made it easy for the Hartford resident to fall into unhealthy eating habits.

Mosby and her mother, Frances Mosby, have changed their approach to food and health as participants in SisterTalk Hartford. That program’s sessions are modeled on research by Brown University in Providence, which tested the concept a few years ago with SisterTalk programs on cable television in Greater Boston.

Now, Mosby and her mother scrutinize food labels, take brisk walks with friends and cook with seasonings and spices in place of fatty flavorings.

Religious themes underpin all of the SisterTalk lessons, using the experiences and teachings of Jesus Christ and other Bible figures to provide support. And rather than focusing on specific numbers on the scale or dress sizes, it emphasizes healthy habits for women of all sizes and body types.

“We know that we all fall down, but we’re motivated by the lessons and by each other to get up and go on,” said Sandra Mosby, whose church was one of 12 in greater Hartford who participated in a recent study of the program’s effectiveness.

Spurred by the successes, Brown University researchers are working on a 12-month SisterTalk program for distribution to at least 30 state health departments who’ve expressed interest, including Connecticut’s.

Health researchers say such programs have promise, particularly at a time when an estimated two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Federal statistics suggest black women are particularly at risk for weight problems and accompanying health complications such as diabetes.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found as many as 70.6 percent of black women across various age groups qualified as overweight or obese between 1999 and 2002.

And according to the minority health office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, black women were 1.6 times as likely as Caucasian women to be obese.

Fifield, the UConn researcher, said early research into the SisterTalk program is heartening.

More than half of the women in the Hartford-area groups lost weight, while another 23 percent maintained their current weights without gaining during the six-month review period.

Of the women who lost weight, about 60 percent either maintained the weight loss or dropped more pounds up to 10 months afterward.

Thomas Lasater, director of Brown University’s Institute for Community Health Promotion, said one of the keys to success is reflecting the challenges and preferences of black women.

That includes busy schedules that can deter people from joining gyms, family obligations and cultural leanings that help dictate what shows up on the dinner table.

“Everything from chicken fried steak, fried okra, you name it _ you can do it in the oven instead of frying it,” Lasater said. “You don’t have to give up the dishes that help you identify who you are _ you just change them a bit. You’d be surprised how many calories you can get rid of that way.”


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