Last week, Duke University released a study suggesting that the key to reducing the overweight and obesity epidemic in Black women is all in the messaging; instead of advocating that we lose weight, we should focus on “maintaining” the weight we have and not gaining anymore. The researchers reason that this new approach is more effective because Black women face “fewer social pressures” to lose weight, which might be what makes it so difficult for them to achieve success.
I’ve seen mixed reactions to this study all over the web as well as with my own clients and readers who resent the suggestion that in order to get healthier, Black women have to lower their weight loss expectations because we are just not capable of losing the weight. Further, this idea that the lack of pressure to lose weight is the culprit contrasts sharply with the conclusion to focus on maintaining instead of losing weight – an idea that reduces the pressure on Black women even more. So, which is it – do Black women need to be pressured into losing weight, or do they need to be manipulated into doing it?
I’d argue that neither method is correct, and the methodology of the study backs that up and is far more meaningful than the salacious headline.
The study’s participants were sectioned off into two different groups – one group given basic treatment and care from their primary care physician, with the other group receiving the “Cadillac” of health care: access to software that helped personalize a plan of action for each individual patient, a personalized chart with behavior-based changes for each patient, regular and frequent follow-up phone calls, a gym membership and access to a personal health coach.
And beyond the unfairness, how could the university isolate the fact that, between two groups where one had damn near infinite resources and the other had to wing it on their own, it was telling the women “maintain, don’t gain” that caused the success?
Oh, and what success, you ask?
62% of the study’s participants who received the “Cadillac” treatment were either at or below the weight they started the program with, whereas only 45% of the standard-care recipients were as successful at the same feat after 12 months. The disparities only grew after 18 months, much to the dismay of the standard-care group.
And, if using language that “tricks” the women into doing what they need to do is all that it takes for them to live better, then what was the point of loading up one study group with resources and not the other?
The study rightly fuels our curiosities about how to help our loved ones, but also fuels our skepticism about how we’re moving the goal posts to make things “easier” for Black women. It’s not “easy” for us – or the women we love – to suffer from diseases linked to food and malnutrition, and it’s not “easy” for us to sit by and watch it happen. We want answers that can – and will – make significant differences in our lives, and fanfare over a 17% difference in the success rate between the two groups isn’t enough.
Even with its flaws, there’s knowledge to be gained from this study. It’s obvious that the researchers see the value in the different components that contributed to the success of the group with all of the resources. The researchers obviously understand that individualized programs, health coaches and gym memberships are significant. If there’s any takeaway here, it’s that any successful weight loss program for Black women is going to equip us with resources to help us make the choices that best suit us individually and our lives. Let us learn what eating style works best for us and our goals. Hell, let us create our own goals. Don’t placate us into thinking that the end goal should be to “maintain” and “not gain,” if that’s not what we want. Empower us to make the choices that are most important to them and, collectively, our bodies will thank us for it!
Erika Nicole Kendall is the writer behind the award winning blog A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss, where she blogs her journey from 330lb couch potato to certified personal trainer and nutritionist. Ask her your health and fitness-related questions on Facebook and Twitter.