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Black colleges join battle of the bulge

Health experts say the obesity epidemic hits hardest among Hispanics and blacks. Historically black colleges are stepping in, with veggie-heavy menus, weight loss contests and other measures to curb the ballooning of young black America.
Norfolk State University student Tina Carroll, right, gets lunch in the school's cafeteria in this Oct. 13 file photo. At 187 pounds, well over what's recommended for her 5-foot-2 frame, she faces choices that could mean the difference between the body of her dreams or a lifetime of weight gain and disease.
Norfolk State University student Tina Carroll, right, gets lunch in the school's cafeteria in this Oct. 13 file photo. At 187 pounds, well over what's recommended for her 5-foot-2 frame, she faces choices that could mean the difference between the body of her dreams or a lifetime of weight gain and disease. Steve Helber / Ap File
/ Source: The Associated Press

As students talk over the thump of rapper Chingy’s “Right Thurr,” Tina Carroll stands in a corner of the university dining hall deliberating.

Piled in front of her are sliced carrots, peas and steaming squash chunks. Nearby, breaded chicken patties fan out like meaty playing cards, and french fries glisten in fat-laden glory.

Carroll nibbles her manicured fingernails, her eyes darting between each selection. At 187 pounds — well above what’s recommended for her 5-foot-2 frame — the 22-year-old graduate student knows decisions she makes here could mean the difference between the bootylicious body of her dreams or a lifetime of weight gain.

Nationwide, health experts agree the obesity epidemic is striking hardest among Hispanics and blacks, with waistlines — and rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke — expanding at alarming rates.

Predominantly black colleges like Norfolk State University are stepping in, rolling out veggie-heavy menus, building walking trails and even launching campus-wide weight loss contests. Their aim: to curb the ballooning of black America by targeting the next generation.

“Our students are at a prime time in their lives where they can make choices that can prevent them from having these problems,” said Cynthia Burwell, head of Norfolk State’s internship programs and an organizer of the health effort.

Similar weight-loss initiatives have been started at five other historically black colleges: Talladega College in Alabama, Alcorn State University in Mississippi, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, South Carolina State University and Wiley College in Texas.

Their programs are supported through federal grants distributed by the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, or NAFEO. Later, the umbrella group will turn over data on student weight trends to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ minority health office for review.

NAFEO grew concerned last year after noticing national obesity trends having an especially striking impact at the 120 schools it represents.

“Obesity, as we all know, is an epidemic across the country, particularly affecting minorities,” said NAFEO senior health adviser Julia Anderson. “It’s no secret.”

Estimates are that nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese.

Blacks, especially women, are carrying many of the pounds: A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found as many as 70.6 percent of black women across various age groups qualified as overweight or obese between 1999 and 2002.

‘Many students are obese’
And while few of the participating black colleges keep hard data, Alcorn State human sciences chairman Ross Santell said it’s easy to see the weight problem is alive and well on black campuses.

“Many, many, many students are obese,” said Santell, organizer of his campus’ weight-loss effort, which includes passing out pedometers. “If you look around campus, you can see that clearly our student body is overweight.”

Officials at Wiley estimate nearly 25 percent of their students are overweight, and at Lincoln University 90 students and staffers have already signed up to shed pounds through their eight-week, campus-wide fitness challenge.

At Norfolk State, campus health experts will teach students how to gauge their weight by calculating their body-mass index and to chart weight loss through shrinking jean sizes rather than dreaded weigh-ins.

In dining halls, monthly theme nights highlight new kinds of fruits and vegetables, while “PHAT stations” across campus let students check their blood pressure and heart rates.

“All connect going toward the same outcome, which is to improve the fitness of our folks,” said Spartan Health Center medical director John Anderson.

They’re battling more than just the lure of Burger King.

Fighting tradition
For one, Anderson said they’re up against decades of cultural tradition that emphasize pig’s feet, chitlins and other soul food staples doctors say just aren’t healthy.

Combine that with a sense of invincibility and you get students picking fried chicken over veggie burgers, he said.

Being away from home also complicates things, said Lincoln women’s center director Michaile Rainey. “Once you come to college, you can pretty much pick and choose what type of food and when you want to eat it,” she said. “You can order Domino’s at 2 a.m. because you’re studying. That’s a contributor.”

At Norfolk, Carroll can testify. A former runner and volleyball player, the Philadelphia native maintained a size 6 through high school. Now she’s closer to a size 14.

“When I got to college, it went from two meals a day to three meals plus snacks,” said Carroll, who estimates that all of her six closest friends are over their ideal weights.

Now she tends to eat on the run, avoiding the square meal and vegetarian options offered in campus cafeterias in favor of grab-and-go sandwiches.

She joined the health challenge in hopes of dropping 30 pounds and reaching her ideal of “thick” — that is, thin, but with the strategic curves once praised in the Sir Mix-a-Lot rap classic “Baby Got Back.”

“I’m going into PR, where you need to have ... that magazine look,” she said. But today she chooses french fries and a fried chicken sandwich.