MENU FOR LIFE: A Healthy Program for African-Americans

by Otelio S. Randall and Donna Randall

Fifty years ago, in the 1950s, African-Americans listened to Lena Horne’s blues ballads, watched the rise of young actor Sidney Poitier in breakthrough Broadway shows and Hollywood movies, and thrilled at the magic of Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Boys of Summer. In the crucible of the civil rights movement, future Supreme Court Justice and then NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, argued Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, while Rosa Parks’s act of courage sparked the Montgomery bus boycott.

Back then, doctors didn’t know what we know now about the correlations between what we eat, how we move, and our health. Researchers suspected but didn’t yet have the scientific evidence to support the connection between dietary saturated fat and heart disease. Even 30 years ago, in the 1970s, people didn’t eat like we do now, and they didn’t live such inactive lives. Cleaning your plate as a kid 30 years ago still meant that you ate a variety of foods someone cooked for you, and even though you had to eat everything on your plate, it was usually a reasonable, or as you mother might have said, a “healthy” amount of food.

Fast forward to today, and you see a different world. Many things have changed, and for the better. We enjoy the fruits of the civil rights movement when we look around and see African-Americans in positions of influence all over our nation. But go to your child’s school and the classroom is full of overweight children and teenagers. Look around in your neighborhood, at the mall, at church. Living big today for African- Americans and all Americans, also means gaining pounds and even bigger bodies.

In the 1950s, before fast food and prepared foods took over the market to make our lives easier, Americans spent about $100 million a year on weight management programs and diet products. Today, in the first decade of the 21st century, we spend $50 billion a year in the hope of losing weight! What tangible benefit do Americans get for this $50 billion a year? Not what we expect to get when we put that money out, that’s for sure: only 5 in 100 people manager to keep weight off lost through diets and special programs for longer than two years. How can it be that we are so willing to spend so much of our money on weight-loss products that fail to deliver their promise?

African-Americans, especially women, have come to accept heavier bodies. Each time the cycle swings back to putting on a few more pounds, we tell ourselves that this is not so bad, that it is healthy and right to love our substantial bodies. After all, Patti LaBelle wears more than a size two and Charles Barkley is the “round mound of rebound.” One step forward, two steps back. Even as the weight-loss industry beckons, every time you read a magazine, see a billboard, watch television, surf the Internet, or listen to the radio, you encounter advertisements trying to get you to buy food. Many researchers, including the US Department of Energy, no less, are discovering that the mere sight of food stimulates the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that carries the message of pleasure. You see food, and you want to eat it. Because we need food to survive, it makes sense that our brains do this. What does not make sense is that we are eating more than we need to survive and thrive. Advertising becomes our cultural message to eat, not just when we are hungry, but whenever we want to—because the food is always available. Food seduces our minds and our bodies, and we behave like food addicts.

Because there is no way to keep overeating without gaining weight, we enter a cycle of emotional eating where we overindulge and gain, deprive ourselves with diets, overindulge and gain, deprive ourselves with diets. Invariably, we return to the perceived comfort, mental and physical, of food. We return to old habits of shopping to get more for our money or buying the “value” quantities of food dangled before our eyes and then eating it all. But when there’s just you and your kids, or just you by yourself, this is far more food than you need to buy at one time. And it’s no bargain if the “value” amount is two, three, or more times the amount of food that is healthful to eat in a single sitting.

But there can be good news. Market forces will shift to meet consumer demand; manufacturers will make and sell what you will buy. Money talks, and the way you spend yours speaks loud and clear about what is important to you. Fifty years ago, African-Americans pushed forward with a movement of profound social change, a stride toward freedom. By embracing a Menu for Life, we can lead America in a stride toward health and well-being. African-Americans are the world’s 11th largest buying power according to the 2000 edition of the annual publication, The Buying Power of Black America. How are you choosing to use your buying power?

Excerpted from the new book MENU FOR LIFE by Otelio S. Randall and Donna Randall published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.