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Essay on Obesity in America

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Obesity among African-Americans in the Appalachia (USA)


The Appalachia describes a region of the continental United States that includes 420 counties in 13 states and is home to over 25 million people (ARC, 2017). This region is generally considered to be disadvantaged due to the dearth of human, financial and technical resources that impact social determinants of health in the region (ARC, 2017). This disadvantage has been attributed to geographical isolation, low household income, a declining tax base, and disproportionate social and economic distress in the region (ARC, 2017). The region has a majority non-Hispanic white population with African Americans constituting a minority of 9.1% of the population (ARC, 2017).

Obesity is an ongoing epidemic in the United States with an estimated 39.8% (2 in 5) American adults said to be obese (Fryar, Carroll, & Ogden, 2018). This worrisome obesity rate is even worse among African Americans with an age-adjusted obesity rate of persons older than 20 estimated at 48%. (Speaks, 2016) This epidemic is particularly worse in African American women with a 56.5% prevalence. (Speaks, 2016) Also, the proportion of obese adults was higher in Appalachia than what is seen in the rest of the country (Beatty et al., 2019). This should not come as a surprise given the poor social determinants in the region.

Obesity has been identified as a risk factor for cardiovascular, endocrine, and musculoskeletal conditions and cancers (Pi-Sunyer, 2009; Kinlen, Cody, & O’Shea, 2018). It should then come as no surprise that African Americans are more likely to die from heart disease and cancer than non-Hispanic Whites with lower obesity prevalence (CDC, 2019). While there are documented numbers for African American obesity prevalence and its complications in the US, it, however, seems there is a dearth of data when it comes to African American obesity in Appalachia. A 2019 Kentucky report indeed showed higher obesity rates among blacks compared to other races. Given the poor social determinants in Appalachia and the overall adult obesity rates in Appalachia, it may be safe to infer that African American obesity likely mirrors the national picture and the Kentuckian study and may even be worse.

Unfortunately, the burden of obesity also comes with a great cost both to the individuals and the community. Given the already disadvantaged socioeconomic position of African Americans and more so in Appalachia, further expenses on healthcare costs associated with obesity worsen the group’s socioeconomic standing with attendant consequences.

Determinants of African American Obesity in the Appalachia

While the African American race is an independent determinant of obesity (Lincoln, Abdou, & Lloyd, 2014), other social factors have been established as contributors to obesity. These social factors include poverty as determined by low income, low educational attainment, and unemployment (Noonan, Velasco-Mondragon, & Wagner, 2016). On all these indices, African Americans in the United States do not fare well and this is also likely to be the picture in disadvantaged Appalachia especially given the abysmal picture of these social factors in Appalachia. To put things into perspective, although we do not have numbers for African Americans in Appalachia, the numbers for Appalachia, in general, will make one infer that the national picture may even be worse in the Appalachia where the median household income is estimated as just 83% of the US average, poverty in the region is about 16.3% poverty rate compared to 14.6% US average and just over 25% of Appalachian adults aged 25-64 have a bachelor’s degree compared to the US average of 32% (Pollard & Jacobsen, 2019). With poverty comes the inability to eat healthy which is one of the contributing factors to obesity. Educational attainment has a direct relationship with income, therefore, the low earning power of African Americans might be partly explained by lower educational attainment which itself is a determinant of obesity.

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Asides from social factors, environmental factors may also contribute to the obesity epidemic among African Americans in Appalachia. African Americans live in poor neighborhoods with the highest rates of homicide which reduces the likelihood of engaging in beneficial outdoor exercise around the neighborhood because of safety concerns. Worse still, these neighborhoods are often food deserts without easy access to supermarkets that sell fresh and healthy foods (Gaskin et al., 2014).

Certain cultural norms have been reported in Appalachia that might contribute to health inequities among African Americans in the region and one of such norms is the fatalistic outlook among the Appalachians (Deskins et al., 2006). A whopping thirty percent of African Americans believe that their health is dependent upon fate(Noonan et al., 2016). This cultural belief of health linked to fate coupled with the distrust of formalized medical systems which is also an entrenched culture in Appalachia will impact health-seeking behaviors negatively.

Having identified the social, environmental, and cultural factors that contribute to the obesity epidemic in African Americans in Appalachia, interventions specifically designed to address these determinants will help reduce the obesity burden in this population.

Theoretical Approaches

Of the papers reviewed during this literature review (Martinez et al., 2016; Lin et al., 2015; Rodney P. Joseph et al., 2015; R. P. Joseph, Casazza, & Durant, 2014; Wilbur et al., 2008; Kim et al., 2008; Whitt-Glover, Hogan, Lang, & Heil, 2008; Parker, Coles, Logan, & Davis, 2010; Goldfinger, Arniella, Wylie-Rosett, & Horowitz, 2008), the social cognitive theory was mostly used as the health behavior theory underlying these interventions. although other theories like the health belief model (HBM), socio-ecological model (SEM), transtheoretical model, and self-regulation theory were also used but to a lesser extent. The application of the social cognitive theory in obesity interventions should not be surprising given the theory’s emphasis on the dynamic interactions between the person, environment, and behavior which are all factors that particularly contribute to obesity as highlighted under the determinants of obesity in the previous paragraph. Another observation from the review was the use of faith-based interventions and the participation of more women. Both findings should come as no surprise given that African Americans are considered the most religious of US races (David, 2018) and the obesity epidemic affects more women than men (Speaks, 2016). There have been mixed results from the application of these theoretical approaches. While some of the studies done using this approach indeed led to weight loss(Lin et al., 2015; R. P. Joseph et al., 2014; Parker et al., 2010; Goldfinger et al., 2008; Kim et al., 2008), other studies did not lead to significant weight loss but led to events like exercise (walking adherence, steps per day) and healthy diet consumption that could lead to weight reduction on the long term (Rodney P. Joseph et al., 2015; Wilbur et al., 2008; Whitt-Glover et al., 2008)

The importance of these theoretical approaches is that effective future interventions can be developed on the constructs and concepts of these theories to lead to informed and evidence-based interventions.

Health inequities

African Americans in the US constitute a minority of less than 15% of the population but have been reported to have disproportionate morbidity and mortality outcomes(Noonan et al., 2016). Reports from individual Appalachian states like Kentucky have indeed confirmed this same picture in Appalachia (Howard, 2017). These disproportionate health outcomes could be due to many social factors like racism which has been correlated with other poor social determinants like substandard employment, housing, education, income, access to health services, occupational hazards, toxic substance exposure, lack of availability of healthy foods, easy access to illicit drugs and alcohol, violent neighborhoods, and environmental exposures(Noonan et al., 2016). Unfortunately, these factors are common to African Americans in the US and in Appalachia, and addressing these health inequities will be an effective way of reducing obesity in African Americans in Appalachia.


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