Popular stereotypes of healthy and fit include: white, upper to middle class, and moderately thin. When you think of the word vegetarian, almost certainly a non-person-of-color comes to mind. If you imagine a yoga class, your imagination likely populates with a room of thin, fit white women. While fitness visionaries, such as Dr. Ian Smith, Billy Blanks, and Jeanette Jenkins, have revolutionized the face of the fitness industry through representing the black community, the rest of our race has yet to push aside the soul food and take control of our health. The beautiful family pictured to the right is a rarity.

Why does black continue to represent an antonym for healthy? The answer is complicated, ranging from our cultural relationship with food to our continued struggle with preventable diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. Focusing on food, why aren’t more fresh vegetables, fruits, and healthy cuisines included in black cultural traditions? Arguably, the black community’s intricate relationship with soul food dates back to slavery and limited access to fresh food. While the racial climate has progressed, low-income communities primarily populated with black people still lack fresh food resources and encourage dependence on processed foods. It is no wonder that the vast majority of African-Americans are overweight and struggling with their health. Convenience kills. If fried-everything is around the corner and fresh food is ten bus stops away, expediency trumps doing the right thing.

When unhealthy habits become embedded in culture, it perpetuates unhealthy behavior. Not only is it common for African-Americans to indulge in unhealthy food, but also eating healthy has become somewhat a cultural anomaly. Other than First Lady Michelle Obama’s mainstream push to get America to “move” and adopt a healthier lifestyle, how common is health advocacy within the black community? It’s not enough to state the dire statistics. What about encouraging individual action? Is it safe for each of us to tell our grandparents, parents, siblings, and children that we will not have fried chicken for dinner? Can we cook a meal of primarily vegetables without being labeled a health nut or accused of acting white?

Reading a popular black forum, one black woman told a story of her southern relatives ridiculing her healthy choices in food.

She writes:

I always hear comments about how just because I like to eat healthy every once in awhile or eat a wide variety of food, I’m “eating white”…We wonder why we have so many health problems in our community …when I’m at family functions and I don’t pile on my plate, [they] look at me crazy [saying], “…You better pile on that plate…[you’re] eating like a white girl!”

Similar to speaking proper English and being smart, why is eating healthy also met with the popular phrase, “you’re acting white?” Unhealthy is not a healthy norm. While there are health activists working everyday to change the state of the black community, they cannot do it alone. It’s time for each of us to take a fierce and personal position, while combatting “unhealthy” as a complacent cultural tradition.

How can the black community make “healthy as white” a fading norm? Or will “healthy” remain an accepted antonym to “black” for many years to come? Speak on it.


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  1. Hi Arielle

    I wasn’t raised on a healthy diet. I know my mother did the best she could. When I went off to college, I still ate the same way.

    It was years later when I connected diet with health. I just really didn’t know, but once I learned better, I did better and made changes.

    It is my goal to share the health message with as many as I can, but people have to want to do it. I have had people ask me what they can do to lose weight, etc, and I usually tell them, give them the information to help them, but they hardly ever change. One has to want to change!

    If someone ever says that my eating ‘healthy is white’, I will tell them that good/bad health knows no color, because it touches everyone. At any time anyone can get sick and be unhealthy. Then I know that will have them thinking. 😉

    Quote from Dick Gregory: “Soul food will kill your soul.”

    Great post!

    Take care,

    Evelyn Parham

  2. Great article

    I totally agree with this author’s questioning of “traditional” African American eating practices. But, I think eating unhealthy should be called “eating white.” This is their culture, their food, their vision of life, so, and I’m not blaming any individual white person (we know they sensitive), why are we continuing to follow and take the scarps from white peoples corporations (McDonalds, fast food in general, Denny’s, or any other large scale unhealthy white operation).

  3. My family being from the Caribbean, I cannot too much associate myself with the unhealthy eating style of African Americans, however I’am very much aware of the unhealthy lifestyle of the African American population. Recognizing this, I am currently getting my masters degree in the Public Health (specifically Behavioral Health and Education) with a focus on obesity in the African American female population.

    In response to you’re article in order to combat this ugly beast within our community it’s not only going to take an individual effort but a collective effort. We, as African American Americans are very social beings and until we support one another in reducing the effects of obesity due to an unhealthy lifestyle choices within our community, obesity and obesity related comorbities will continue to claim our lives.

    If we are to effectively and collectively deal with this huge issue, we need dedicated individuals (I’m leaning toward members of our race) involved in politics and policy, representing the AA community, so that we can first and foremost deal with the food desert crisis (and that is just one factor to our lifestyle) that are characteristic of low-income AA communities. Until we really recognized that the unhealthy lifestyles of AA is not only a health concern but also a health inequity and inequality, we will continue on this path on which we are currently on…self demise.

    Appreciate the post,

    • Yes I understand and applaud your effort to educate yourself on health. I have always wanted help my family overcome most of their battles with food.

      IMO, West Indians and most all other people of African decent have had the benefit of fast-food free areas, but if US companies have their way, they will infiltrate there too.

      GOod luck

  4. I think it’s all about choices; growing up and afterwards. I was with my friend and he was starting to study for his medical school exams. I would read the problems and then he would be like, “Are they Black?” And I would just joke and say yes, and then we’ll diagnose them with high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and even HIV. I know it wasn’t funny but it was funny. It seems like we carry every negative disease. We lead the charts in high numbers. I hope that antonym and jokes changes.

  5. Black is a synonym for health. In the Black community there ARE lots of people advocating eating healthy. The Nation of Islam advocate it for years, in fact Elijah Muhammad wrote a book in the 1970’s call Eat to Live. The Black Hebrew Israelites have a chain of vegetarian restaurants call Soul Vibrations. Rastafarians in the Black communities advocate a vegetarian lifestyle. Then there are the Seventh Day Adventist who espouse vegetarianism and some of these churches are in the Black communities.

    • @Kemwer:
      This is a very good and true point. Most of the vegans and even raw foodists that i know are black people, myself included.

    • @Kemwer: FYI: It’s Soul Vegetarian. LOL! But, to your point, everyone of those groups are such small factions within their respective mediums, their messages become drowned out and must be searched for.

  6. This is the 2nd article or so that I’ve seen lately about the black community, food and weight.

    I must say that I shake my head to those that say eating right is eating white (along with speaking proper English is acting white).

    I agree to the history of African-Americans eating unhealthy. But it’s 2011 and there are a million of food options out there! Stop using where you live or because that’s how your mamma made it as an excuse to keep eating crap.

    My husband and I are black and vegetarian. So are some of my black friends. Our religion doesn’t dictate our diet. Nor are we alternative, hippy, nag champa folks with locks either. We’re just regular middle class black folks that have chosen a vegetarian diet in our adult life.

    As you can see, my husband and I vegetarian diet hasn’t made us thin and sickly looking like most people think you are when you say you’re vegetarian.

    Getting past the mindset of having a piece of meat on your plate to complete your meal for Americans in general is a long ways away. But people are embracing things like meatless Mondays.

    I remember before I became vegetarian I made my 1st vegetarian lasagna. My black friend came over to try it and she said, “this is good, but do you have a piece of chicken or something? I need some meat.” Even in my pre- vegetarian times I was shocked that the vegetarian lasagna wasn’t enough for her.

    I have no idea on how to change people’s perceptions on eating healthier or vegetarian. There are so many ways to still eat the things you love healthier whether it’s vegetarian or not!

    I feel until a person is ready they’ll make the transition their own like I did.

  7. This “acting white” statement is a coping mechanism for those who worry that they’re not measuring up. If I can hurt you first, you’ll be so focused on your pain that you don’t see I’m hurting because of your success, your ability to try something different, your willingness to strive for more, etc… It’s really past time we cut it out because it’s holding us back as a people.

    As for the topic of eating healthy. Being a vegetarian doesn’t necessarily equate to health, if you don’t know how to do it correctly. There are plenty of non-meat items that can make you fat and unhealthy if you don’t prepare them correctly. Also, remember that carbs fall under a vegetarian diet. This is not to attack vegetarians. Simply stating that this doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all of healthy living.

    Saying all this, I am a quasi-vegetarian (or better yet, a Pescetarians) for two simple reasons: 1. I prefer the taste of fish and other seafood; and 2. I’m too lazy to cook meat. Growing up, fish was reserved for Good Friday. But what should have been healthy was strip of its benefits because of how it was prepared – fried instead of grilled or baked.

    It wasn’t until I left home that I understood that you can measure a food’s level of healthiness by how it is prepared. I also learned just how much little changes to the diet can make a big difference to one’s health. I’m Caribbean so rice and beans was a staple in our household – it was eaten a minimum of three times a week. Rice and beans can be a very healthy option, but not when it’s (a) piled up on your place; and (b) when it’s white rice. Changing from white to brown for even one of those meals during the week would have significantly decreased our chances of so many health issues – hello diabetes!

    For many in our community (and I personally can speak for my family) the assumption is that healthy equals flavorless. Our taste buds (I completely understand this as it relates to white vs. brown rice) are accustomed to certain flavors and we think that as soon as we change the way we prepare a dish or substitute an ingredient, we’ve lost the essence of it. The reality is that doesn’t have to be the case. Sometimes changes that are made can enhance rather than diminish taste. There’s also the chance that you won’t even notice the difference. For those times that you do, you’ll just have to train your taste buds to get used to the subtle changes.

    Whatever the solutions we encourage in our community, we must remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Celebrate those small changes that our families and friends are making so they’re not left feeling that this is an impossible task.

    Thank you for continuing this important conversation.

  8. As a new vegetarian ( 7mo strong), I constantly hear the banter of my family and friends because I don’t eat meat, and how I am unhealthy because I’m not getting enough protein. Ignorance has left a void of health that our community is in serious need of. Its saddens me to see the obesity rate of black women and there are things that our community can do to change this. The churches which have been the pillar of our community for hundreds of years can do more by enacting exercise programs and healthy cooking classes. We can pray together but we can’t live healthy together??? CHANGE

  9. I hear it all the time too. I can’t fight the ignorance so I say if this is white then “White is Right”.

  10. Yes, this “acting white” is a pain in my side. I have heard it all my life because I speak proper English when I handle business, because I teach my kids to behave a certain way and, oh my, read books outside of school-so very white. So being intelligent, trying to be healthier and raise my kids to be intelligent and respectful is being white? So what is being black-eating fried chicken and talking in street slang? That is a self depreciating statement and its sad we dont even realize that. Its one of the things that helps perpetuate the stereotypes as well as the unhealthy habits of our community.

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