Healthy Food

Nutritional education: A solution to health disparities

National Nutrition Month, celebrated every year in March, is a nationwide information and nutritional education campaign encouraging people to make informed and healthy lifestyle and dietary choices. The 2024 National Nutrition Month theme, “Beyond the Table,” examines food production, farm-to-table, and resources, and Black dietitians are particularly digging into further causes of disparities in healthy nutrition.

With Black women leading at disproportionate rates for various chronic illnesses, healthy lifestyle practitioners are using nutritional education and empowerment as a means of improving overall wellness and combating racial and gender health disparities.

Across the United States, people are suffering from a multitude of health conditions that are directly impacted by their daily nutritional intake. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 70% of the sodium consumed by Americans comes from prepared and packaged foods, as sodium can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure.

Furthermore, excess added sugar intake is a key contributor to obesity, a condition that disproportionately burdens African American women and youth. The US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health reports that Black women have the highest rates of obesity or being overweight than any other group– with about 4 out of 5 women reportedly overweight or obese.

Local dietitian Charmaine Jones is founder and CEO of the Northeast, DC-based Food Jonezi, a nutrition consulting service. Jones works to align District residents in underserved communities with balanced dietary and nutritional guidelines to promote healthy lifestyles.

Based on her experience, many residents struggle to maintain proper nutrition from a lack of knowledge and access to resources within close reach.

“Honestly, a lot of people just don’t know what to eat. If you don’t know, you’re going to continuously eat the same way. [People] are eating out of habit or they try these fad diets that don’t work [which is also] called “yo-yo dieting,” Jones told The Informer. “These quick fixes mess up the body’s metabolism which causes them to gain weight and ultimately brings more harm to the body than good.”

While diet is key in health and maintaining a healthy weight, exercise is also important.

According to the Office of Minority Health, in 2018, African Americans were reported to be “20% less likely to engage in physical activity as compared to non-Hispanic whites.”

Jones correlated the lack of exercise and poor diet among African American women to a variety of lifestyle challenges that interfere with prioritizing healthy habits.

“A lot of Black women are not exercising as much as they should, anymore. Before COVID, people were a little more active. COVID made us a bit more relaxed. [But also], a lot of Black women have a lot on their plate. They’re working a lot of jobs, they’re breadwinners. Some of them are single mothers and are trying to make ends meet,” Jones explained. “Sometimes when you take care of everyone else, you forget about yourself. Weight gain comes when you neglect self-care and you are living for comfort. Convenience has a lot to do with lifestyle.”

Treating Ailments Beyond the Plate

While the 2024 theme “Beyond the Table,” examines food production and safety, naturopathic practitioners like Dr. Andrea Sullivan, of the Center for Natural Healing in Silver Spring, Maryland, examines the impact of life experiences when talking about nutrition. Sullivan looks at systemic racism, sexism, and socioeconomic challenges, as it relates to food choices and helps educate people on the importance of nutrition in overall health and wellness.

Dr.  Andrea Sullivan educates on the importance of healthy food choices, emphasizing that food is medicine.  (Courtesy of Sullivan via Facebook)
Dr. Andrea Sullivan educates on the importance of healthy food choices, emphasizing that food is medicine. (Courtesy of Sullivan via Facebook)

In her new book “The Sacrifices of Super Women: Natural Remedies to Restore Balance,” Sullivan navigates the landscape of homeopathic/naturopathic medicine, the cornerstone of her practice. She also discusses how to achieve adequate levels of nutrition using holistic practices versus allopathic medicine. Sullivan underscores the countless factors in our food that create disease, and the plethora of things that can also create wellness.

“Food is medicine. Thomas Edison said years ago that the doctors of the future will ultimately teach their patients about taking care of the frame of their bodies through food,” Sullivan told The Informer.

However, Sullivan said the relationship between Black women and nutritious foods is nuanced.

“African American women, because of the racism, because of the sexism, because of the stress of those two situations and their lifestyles, have historically gone to the foods that we had to eat at first, whether the pork chops or the bacon or whatever, to greasy foods, to salty foods, and now to foods that you can’t even pronounce,” she said.

Bouts of adversity lead to stress, and consequently, increase inflammation in the body.

These imbalances often encourage an urge for greasy, sweet, or fat-heavy comfort foods as a means to cope. However, these foods pose a threat to the body, as the additives and substances in today’s fast food and prepackaged items carry synthetic qualities that once digested, turn into fat that the body does not know how to process.

Sullivan urges that while many people are consumed with life’s stress factors, just a few small steps can help many achieve better nutritional intake and overall health. Baking instead of frying foods, reducing the use of salt, and combating sugar cravings by means of exercise, and even meditation are a few initial steps that will produce quality health.

“Everything you put in your mouth is either fighting disease or creating disease, everything. So, we have to start to make different choices,” said Sullivan. “Maybe we just buy one bushel of kale per week, literally, that’s organic. Maybe we just drink half of our body weight in ounces in terms of water. These are things that we can do that will change our health. You are responsible for your health, not your doctor. You are responsible for your health.”