Large waist size, obesity both shorten black women’s life span

The obesity epidemic — which Michelle Obama has embraced as her mission to end — disproportionately affects certain groups of people more than others. Near the top of the list are African-American women, who have seen the greatest increases in body weight and waist size over the past decade.

If the trend continues unchecked, up to 70 percent to 90 percent of black women will either be obese or have “abdominal obesity’’ — defined as having a waist circumference of 35 inches or greater — by 2020.

And that doesn’t bode well for their health, according to a Boston University study published in yesterday’s New England Journal of Medicine. The researchers found that the risk of dying among 34,000 women participating in the black women’s health study increased steadily with excess body weight. Those with a body mass index of 35 to 40 (equivalent to a 5’4’’ woman weighing 204 to 233 pounds) had more than a 50 percent greater risk of dying from any cause over a 13-year period. Those with BMIs over 40 doubled their death risk.

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Women with the largest waist circumferences had a 40 percent greater risk of dying, independent of their body weight — though the two usually go hand in hand.

Some earlier research seemed to suggest that body weight might not play as strong a role in the health of black women as white women until they became extremely obese, but “this study is saying there really isn’t a racial difference between African Americans and Caucasians,’’ said study co-author Julie Palmer, an epidemiologist at Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center.

With all the bad news on top of bad news, I asked Palmer to provide some evidence-based tips for maintaining a healthy body weight and waist size. “You don’t need to go to the gym or work out really hard to maintain your body weight,’’ she said. “Other research we’ve conducted shows that just walking from place to place at a quick pace for a few hours every week keeps women from becoming obese.’’

She and her colleagues are now studying nutritional tweaks that might be beneficial, such as avoiding sugary beverages and diet sodas — since research suggest no calorie sweeteners can fuel sugar cravings — as well as steering clear of fast-food restaurants.

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