A new study that's already producing controversy focuses on African American women who are overweight or moderately obese. The researchers say that this group should focus on weight maintenance rather than attempting to lose weight, reported the Los Angeles Times on August 26. The study specifically singled out African American women because, according to the L.A. Times, "African American women are far less likely than men or women of other races or ethnicities to respond to weight-loss programs with meaningful weight loss" even if they are obese. And the concern is that obesity, which boosts the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in African American women, is high in that group.
Background: Released August 26, the study indicated that African American women typically remained at their current weight or even lost a few pounds when assigned to a program focusing on maintenance. In contrast, a comparison group of African American women who received wellness newsletters gained an average of a pound after a year. However, the study opens the door for controversy based on the fact that it singled out African American women. In contrast to the Los Angeles Times article, for example, which highlighted race in its headline "For black women, weight maintenance may be the best goal," the Grio author Dr. Tyeese Gaines focused on the general results, with an August 26 headline: "Focusing on weight loss may not be effective." And although he reported the same results, he emphasized a quote from an expert that extrapolated from the study to encompass all individuals with weight problems.
"This study demonstrates that weight maintenance is easier to achieve than weight loss,” says Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity medicine and nutrition fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “However, this is true in persons of all ethnic backgrounds, not just those of African descent.” But the lead author of the study is focusing on black women.
"Historically, weight loss programs are not as effective among black women compared to white women and men," says Gary Bennett, lead author of the study and director of obesity prevention at Duke University. “There’s not the same social pressure for black women to lose weight in the black community,” he explains. “If 80 percent of the black female population is overweight, then that’s normal. So, being normal weight is abnormal.”
Because of those perceptions, standard weight loss tactics do not work well among black women, says Bennett. Therefore, his team used messages such as “getting Michelle Obama arms" rather than talking about the connection between health and weight loss.
Constance Brown-Riggs, registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, takes a different stance, pointing to physicians as the culprits in terms of conveying the right message. “It validates the need for registered dietitians in facilitating behavior change strategies that can lead to weight loss or maintenance,” she explains. “Primary care doctors just don’t have the time or resources to adequately address the myriad of factors involved in moving an individual towards successful weight loss or maintenance.” Author of "The African American Guide To Living Well With Diabetes" and "Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes: Includes Exchange List and Carbohydrate Counts for Traditional Foods from the American South and Caribbean," she added, “The ‘cookie cutter’ approach will not help individuals work through barriers such as purchasing and preparing healthier foods or incorporating physical activity into their day.”