When Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: The Link Between Sugary Drinks and African-American Health Disparities

FILE - In this May 31, 2012 file photo, a man leaves a 7-Eleven store with a Double Gulp drink, in New York. If New York City
FILE - In this May 31, 2012 file photo, a man leaves a 7-Eleven store with a Double Gulp drink, in New York. If New York City bans big sodas, what's next? Large slices of pizza? Double-scoop ice cream cones? Tubs of movie-theater popcorn? The 16-ounce strip steak? Opponents of the proposed ban may use that slippery-slope argument along with other legal strategies to try to block the first-in-the-nation rule. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

I will never forget the time when I visited my parent's church on "Diabetes Sunday," a program of the American Diabetes Association to raise awareness about the disease within the African-American community. A brochure in the church bulletin highlighted the dangers and prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the African-American community and how obesity is a causal factor. After the service, we made our way to the fellowship hall to celebrate Black History Month. As we began to chow down on unhealthy foods and sugary drinks, nobody blinked at the hypocrisy.

We're all familiar with the statistics. African-Americans have higher rates of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension and end stage renal disease. Medical science has demonstrated that each and every one of these chronic diseases that undermine our health and length of life are highly correlated with the obesity epidemic. Yet, it seems that our community has been in a state of suspended disbelief with regard to the evidence.

I have been among the 80 percent of African-American women who are either overweight or obese. When I look back at the time when I tipped the scale at 200 lbs, it was my overconsumption of -- indeed addiction to -- refined carbohydrates, including sugary foods and drinks that was the culprit. I didn't slow down when I learned about the effects of these unhealthy drinks and foods on the human body, including increased insulin resistance, which leads to type 2 diabetes. Nor when my father -- who is 6 foot 2 inches tall and weighs more than 300 pounds -- was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Not even when doctors started tracking the decline of his kidney function.

It was only when my own health became compromised that I began to connect what I knew to what I was feeling. I had long become accustomed to the discomfort of chafed thighs and the mood swings that came with blood sugar highs and lows. It was only when my musculoskeletal system began to fail -- measured by knee and ankle pain and an acute case of bursitis -- that I knew I had to make changes.

I've always exercised consistently but I was never able to burn enough calories to equal the amount of empty calories I was consuming. So, I worked to eliminate empty calories from my diet by replacing sugary drinks and fattening foods with water, fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats. I was not only able to break my addiction to unhealthy drinks and foods, I lost 60 pounds in the process.

But we can't solve the obesity crisis facing African-Americans by focusing solely on personal behavior. What we face is systemic and societal. In many neighborhoods unhealthy food and drink are heavily advertised and often the only options available. It's like we are living in our version of The Matrix -- a world in which unhealthy food and drink products are the norm, when in fact, this manufactured "reality" is not just harming our health, it's literally killing us.

The beverage industry says that there is no link, or very little connection, between sugary drinks and the chronic illnesses plaguing our communities. Indeed, research they have funded has suggested that there is weak evidence associating consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to body weight, but the preponderance of the research evidence suggests otherwise.

There is a long and storied relationship between the African-American community and food and beverage companies. Through sponsorships, jobs, entrepreneurial opportunities and multi-cultural marketing, these companies have helped give our communities a sense of cultural, social, and economic inclusion even when mainstream society ignored, marginalized and actively discriminated against us. Over time, these companies have been loyal to us, and we have repaid their loyalty by becoming their most loyal and ardent consumers.

I'm not suggesting that we break up with these companies. But the time has come for us to ask if we love their products more than we love ourselves. Do we love the products more than we love our children -- who are projected to be the first generation to live sicker and shorter lives than their parents because of obesity and related illnesses? We may not need to break up, but we need to develop a different relationship -- one that goes beyond cultural pride and financial support to a relationship that fundamentally respects the value of human life.

This may mean purchasing water and diet products instead of sugary drinks. It may mean demanding that organizational sponsorships be tied to the promotion of healthier food and drink options. And it may mean looking at innovative ways to fund community health policies and programs that promote better nutrition and physical activity options in schools and neighborhoods -- especially targeting funds to populations most at risk for obesity and related chronic diseases.

No matter what happens next week when the people of Richmond go to the polls, it will be a tragedy if a simple vote ends this conversation. This is an opportunity to consider what's happening to the health of the people in our neighborhoods -- especially our children -- and commit ourselves to becoming educated and activated about finding solutions that support healthier children and healthier communities. Next week should mark the beginning of an opportunity for the people of Richmond to work with policymakers, businesses and other leaders to find sustainable ways make the healthy choice the easier choice.

Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is president and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a strategic social change consulting firm in Washington, D.C.