The statistics are clear: four out of five black women are overweight or obese. Combined with the troubling rates of Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, we have become our worst enemy through poor weight management, minimal exercise, and eating unhealthy. Temporary health solutions will not change our health circumstances; our collective battle with weight and unhealthy eating requires a lifestyle change. There are numerous black women adopting vegetarian and vegan lifestyles as one solution and rethinking black women’s ongoing relationship with meat. Can a meatless lifestyle benefit more black women? And, how do our perceptions of these eating lifestyles influence our willingness to engage with them?
While vegetarianism and veganism are not limited to one racial, gender, class or age group, the advertised faces of these eating lifestyles primarily are white, skinny, and female. As non-skinny bodies are worshiped within black American communities, how do these stereotypes impact black women’s motivation to pursue these alternative-eating lifestyles?
McDonald’s commercials are saturated with black people, a successful marketing tool for influencing black women to engage with their products. While there are black female vegetarians, vegans, and allies working to racially diversify the public face of these vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, black women cannot afford to wait for someone to market to them. Our children and families follow our eating habits; their health is on the line.
Before you classify this argument as vegetarian or vegan fundamentalism, consider black families’ low access to non-processed or non-genetically modified meats and foods. Our communities are plagued with junk fodder, including fried chicken spots and burger joints that don’t have our community’s health at heart. For cost and production sake, the quality of meat sold in these restaurants barely meets legal health standards and unfortunately, our grocery stores are not much better. If organic meat is accessible, it is high priced and outside the budget range for most black families. With these limited choices, is it smarter to choose a meatless lifestyle for our health benefit or eat what is sold to us?
In Sistah Vegan: Black Women Vegans Speak on Food Identity, Health, and Society, A. Breeze Harper states that black female vegetarians and vegans resist “becoming a ‘health disparity’ statistic by kicking the junk food habit, questioning the soulfulness of postindustrial Soul Food, raising children who have never tasted a McDonald’s (not so) Happy Meal, and making the connections that compassionate consumption has to creating a compassionate and eco sustainable society.” While it is exciting to imagine a community that generally operates on a higher level of food consciousness, the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism extend much further than healthy meat eating.
When centurions were asked the key elements of their diet and living past 100, the overwhelming majority ate plant-based diets and regularly exercised through natural physical activities, such as taking the stairs and doing yard work. According to The Blue Zone, these 100-year-old men and women built wooden fences, maintained farms, and even jet skied on a regular basis. Is meat truly healthy or necessary for longevity? And if not, why do we continue to consume it?
While I have not reached an immediate conclusion, I advocate that more black women converse with black female vegetarians and vegans on their reasons for transitioning into the lifestyle. I am purely an observer of the practice, so I asked NYU performer and director, Kelly Thomas, to share her journey to vegetarianism. Interestingly enough, black female vegetarians actually influenced her decision. She told me:
No one was actively trying to turn me out, but [my mentors] were knowledgeable and intentional about what they were eating. That impressed me. It was the first time that I heard people linking physical health with emotional and spiritual health…and their food was delicious to me. I decided to give vegetarianism a trial run and in the first couple of weeks, I noticed my energy and productivity level rise.
She also shared that her decision was influenced by her mother’s diagnosis with cancer and research has proven that heavy meat diets increase cancer risk. Three years into her journey, she is surrounded by women committed to health consciousness and participates in a performance collective, called The Body Ecology, which creates theater around issues of women’s health.
Clearly, there is an emerging community of black women benefiting from this lifestyle. Perhaps it’s time for more black women to take notice. Following Kelly’s footsteps, why not try a vegetarian or vegan diet for a few weeks? There are various ways to practice the lifestyle, including some diets that allow the consumption of fish and shell food. With the proper discipline and research, vegetarianism and veganism are viable options for combating black women’s health disparities and empowering our communities to pursue healthy food consumption.