Experts issue urgent “call to action” to battle obesity among African-American women and girls

At a conference co-sponsored by APA and the Association of Black Psychologists, obesity researchers, health professionals and community leaders discussed the U.S. obesity epidemic and its disproportionate effect on African-American women.

ABPsi President and APA PresidentCauses and solutions for the disproportionate impact the U.S. obesity epidemic has on African-American girls and women was the focus of a Summit on Obesity in African American Women and Girls, co-sponsored by the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi) and APA in Washington, D.C., Oct. 22-23.

The obesity epidemic has affected all Americans, but it has hit African-American women the hardest, said keynote speaker Cynthia Ogden, PhD, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost 60 percent of black women are obese, compared to 32 percent of white women and 41 percent of Hispanic women. That trend is driving many major health disparities, including decreasing black women's life expectancy and increasing their chances of developing a host of health challenges, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and arthritis, noted APA President Suzanne Bennett Johnson, PhD.

"The issues facing the African-American community are immense, but if we don't have our health, not much else matters," said ABPsi President Cheryl Grills, PhD.

Educating black communities about the many different causes of the epidemic will be an important first step in helping communities fight back, said Angela Cooke-Jackson, PhD, a health communication/behavioral science professor at Emerson College. "So often, as black people, we are talked about but not talked to," she said. "We need to give black women a voice and give them agency. Tell them how stress is affecting them, and tell their communities what they are up against."

"Prime Time Sister Circles" program founders Marilyn Gaston, MD, a former assistant surgeon general, and Gayle Porter, PhD, a clinical psychologist, offered as an example their program, which has helped more than 2,000 women in Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, Tampa, Fla., and the greater Washington, D.C., area.

While interventions such as these are important, James Jackson, PhD, director and research professor of the Institute for Social Research and past-president of ABPsi, underscored that psychology must get the analysis right – an analysis that includes the vital intersection of race, stress and obesity in black girls and women.

The presenters emphasized that interventions at all levels of society — from health care providers to community groups to policy makers — will be necessary to beat the obesity epidemic. "If we are really going to solve this problem, we are going to have to be on interdisciplinary research teams, we are going to have to partner with community leaders and we are going to have to find allies ... every step of the way," Johnson said. “And we must understand the conditions of black girls and women’s lives that either enhance or undermine health; conditions wherein the nexus of race, gender and social class create formidable structural forces affecting their health,” added Grills. 

Focused on both analysis and solutions, the summit concluded with breakout sessions on framing the obesity issue as experienced by black women and girls and defining recommended next steps.

For full coverage of the summit, see the January 2013 Monitor on Psychology.