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.
OMG! OMG! I love this article. This is so true & needed info. i can’t even start to say how many times I’ve wanted to go vegan but had no support. I tried Oprah’s recipes for her seven day vegan challenge & I didnt feel them as much I wanted to. but great article and site
I don’t think Erykah Badu is a vegan just her kids. I might be able to go a few days Vegan or Vegetarian but I just feel I can eat much better as a meat eater. IMO
I always get confused by the different levels. I do think people need to pick a diet that fits their lifestyle. Healthy eating is very important. I think more people are changing their eating habits. I know I have a lot of friends who trying different things. Great post!
I’ve been trying to eat as much fruit in the morning and cutting back on my meat consumption as much as possible. I’m almost only on fish and I’ve noticed my energy levels are better when I eliminate everything but fruit and vegetables.
I’m a black woman who adapted a vegetarian (striving for vegan) lifestyle this year. Never felt better!
Great read. Thoughtful approach to getting our people ready for the new decade. With food prices rising and contamination threatening seafood, vegetarianism seems like a logical step towards reclaiming our nutrition.
You made some wonderful points here.
I don’t understand people who eat raw food. I would think that eating raw would be time consuming and unsustainable for American culture. In a fast pace world that live where everyone wants things now, to tell people they need to slow is ludicrous.
It’s seems as admirable as the Omish, but really who wants to move with them…
For some, veganism and vegetarianism is a process. I have been a vegetarian for twenty years as of this year and vegan for the past ten. But is was a process. For those of you who want to become a vegetarian or vegan, start small. You don’t have to do it all at once. Just know that you’re you are doing something incredibly positive for yourself and the world around you and take it from there. Good Luck!!!
Thanks for this post. As a Black women turning 45 in a couple of weeks and wanting to adopt a more healthier lifestyle I have considered vegetarian. This post gave me a lot of insight.
What scares me about being a vegetarian/vegan is eating soy. For years it has been linked to breast cancer and I am at high risk with a mother who had it twice and had both breasts removed and a grandmother on my dad’s side who had breast cancer and then died from stomach cancer. Can it be done – vegetarian/vegan without soy?
It sure can. You can have oat burgers, rice patties, or mushroom burgers instead of soy burgers. There’s almond, coconut, and rice milk in place of soy milk. You would have to become a diligent label reader for veganism and if your trying to avoid soy, because pretty much everything in a box or package probably has some sort of soy derivative in it. But if a vegan/ vegetarian fresh life style is what you desire , you can definitely do it with out soy. It will take research, time, and determination.
@Katy: Yes, becoming vegan can be a lot easier if you adopt a PLANT! based diet. The over-reliance on soy is one of the biggest mistakes a vegan can make. You’ll end up eating a vegan version of the SAD (Standard American Diet) diet
@Katy: yes it can. I eat little to no soy products. If there is soy its usually one of the last listed items on the ingredients. People eat so much soy because they think its there only source of protein in a vegan diet but that is completely false. You can get protein from grains, nuts, beans, potatoes etc. and those will provide you with the amount you need whereas meat gives you a protein overload. I’ve been vegan for 2 1/2 years and its been great, the hardest thing is knowing that when you go out to eat its hardly ever going to be %100 vegan friendly, but the world is changing so im grateful for that!
Great points and article too!
I am a plant-based diet advocate and I chose to eat this way because of health reasons. Now it is a way of life for me.
I do believe if (we) black women paid more attention to what we put in our bodies instead of what we put on the outside, they would be a lot healthier.
You mention the cost of organic food, well…I look at it this way. Pay now or pay later..which will I choose? I’ll sacrifice and pay now..because paying later could cost way more than I could ever imagine.
Glad I found your blog via FB. You got yourself a new reader.
Have a wonderful day!
great article, I became vegan in October 2010 and have never felt better. I feel the best when I’m mostly raw!
I loved it. I really like how you pointed out how vegans are pictured as white and skinny. Also, how McDonald’s strategically markets to black communities. That is one of my goals is to change the face of veganism and even more, change the taste. Another thing we talk about in public heath a lot are the food deserts you mentioned. It will take policy changes and paradigm shits to get African Americans to make healthier decisions, because they have no where to buy quality food and are bombarded with fast food and junk.
I think women should invest in resources that help them come into the consciousness of cruelty free eating and overall consumption. This does mean that everyone should be extra careful in not killing the smallest/biggest of organisms, everything dies, but it is being careful and compassionate in regard to any creature’s suffering.
I don’t understand the notion of eating dead flesh, some organism that has been dead for over a weeks before it reaches the plate. It is fundamental flawed way of life that we must struggle to change before it’s too late
I really like this site, and I hope to see more articles like this and even more activism! The fight is now!!!!!
Awesome! I am very happy to see this food revolution evolving in the Black community. We all see how easy it is to stop and have lunch at a local fast food restaurant. Let’s pay attention to what make better sense for our health and our children’s. This revolution needs to be put into overdrive before we are extinct.
Also, when you chamge a man you change an individual butwhen you change a mother you change a family.
I concur with previous comments. This is a great article, which has inspired me to continue my journey of living healthier and making better food choices. As a black man, it is imperative to support our community and be the change we want to see. We all must do our part.
I’ll be honest veganism, does not make sense to me. Vegetarianism does because for the most of my childhood my mother was a vegetarian. She still cooked meat dishes for my family but it was accompanied with lots of non-meat sides. It wasn’t unusual to have meat free dinners, breakfast or lunch. Actually, they were quite tasty and I used many of those recipes when I was in college. Thanks to her I do not fear a plate of vegetables.
Plants make plates pretty!
I think it is important to eat a lot of vegetables and fruits. But being a vegan or vegetarian does not make one automatically healthy. I’ve known several fat vegans and vegetarians. My concern is this, it is important to make sure women (and men) get enough essential vitamins like B12, iron, calcium, vitamin D etc. I think it is fine to eat vegan, vegetarian, etc. etc., as long as you eat a well-balanced diet and exercise.
I gave up meat about a year ago and have never felt better…and I have never eaten better either. As a lover of good food, eliminating meat as an option has forced me to get more creative with plant-based foods and it’s been a great journey.
Hey Everyone! Your stories and feedback on this article have been phenomenal. Inspired by your responses, Frugivore is doing a weekly profile of black female vegetarians. If you or anyone you know are interested in submitting, please forward them the link below and tell them to email me!
The article was a wonderful read. I have been a vegetarian for18 years and a vegan for 5years. It has been a wonderful journey.If my people parish it won’t be my fault’ . When they ask I share. Remember what you eat don’t make me fat and unhealthy.The Omish are beautiful people who care. They prepare and sell healthy food.
I see so many women from this post have chose to become meatless, can anyone point me in the direction to find really great recipes to start a meat free diet. I’m not going to lie, I love meat but it time to give it up. Need help finding my way to a plant based diet.
Thanks for your help
This is such a wonderful post… I love it because I was a vegetarian for 6 years prior to getting pregnant with my son and that was 11 years ago. While I was pregnant I was told by my doctor that I needed some B12 vitamins in my diet and that would only come through eating meats and it was at that time I began to eat meat again. I have tried over and over again to get back on the vegetarian regimen and found that it was so difficult. 1 year ago in November 2010 I stop eating meat and carried on with that for 1 year exactly. I have began eating meat again and I can definitely see a difference in the way I feel. I feel more sluggish and tired when eating meat. Blah! =(
I am so looking forward to getting back on my no meat regimen again… Thanks so much for the motivational post. (=
I’m a 21 year old black female who has been vegetarian for about a year.I would say I am very much a family person which is what inspired me to become a vegetarian.After seeing my mom survive colon cancer and my grandmother suffer threw a few bouts of diverticulitis, I realized that I had to take more initiative to become healthy. I think people my age have the misconception that “I’m young” which leads them to think they are healthy or have plenty of time to get healthy, and from experience I can definitely say that its Not true.
If your trying to become a vegetarian, do your research. There are actually sub categories of vegetarianism: vegetarian, semi vegetarian, ovo lacto vegetarian, ovo vegetarian, lacto vegetarian, and the most extreme which is vegan. It sounds cliche but becoming vegetarian or vegan is not just changing your diet but your lifestyle. My advice is to not be influenced by the people or places that surround you. Take the process step by step!!! Have faith and good luck!!!