Years back, I reviewed a press release of sorts on the Huffington Post suggesting “African-American women who follow the same diet as white women and exercise just as much tend to lose less weight because they burn fewer calories”. The information in this release was based on a scientific article published in the International Journal of Obesity.
While I understand that writers are pressured by the need for a good headliner, the notion that black women burn fewer calories than whites is a hasty overgeneralization that’s quite misleading. This press release and the study in question are seriously burdened by two primary misinterpretations and I’ll address both.
Point 1: Black women lose less weight than white women because they burn fewer calories. Let me start by saying this: Black women will likely lose less weight than white women for the SAME type of exercise but it’s not necessarily because we naturally burn fewer calories, as this study suggests.
As a exercise scientist and advanced trainer who has worked with hundreds of black and white women and one who’s battled obesity all my life, the one thing that I can confirm is that all women do not respond to the same type or volume of exercise.
African-Americans naturally have denser bones and more muscle mass than whites. This includes African-American women. Given this fact, it only stands to reason that exercise stimuli that specifically target bone and muscle (resistance training) are more likely to produce beneficial results among a population of black women.
Indeed, studies carried out by some of my former colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago have already shown that resistance training is more beneficial among black men than in white men. This type of training is not only beneficial for bone and muscle but it also elevates the metabolic rate and fuels the fat burning process that’s necessary for efficient and effective weight loss.
In addition to being a recreational weight lifter myself, I’ve been incorporating moderate-to-high resistance into the training programs of African-American women for years in both industry and research. It’s by far one of the most effective ways to ensure successful and sustained weight loss.
Point 2: Black women would have to eat fewer calories per day than their white peers to lose the same amount of weight. With advice like this, it’s no wonder why black women are constantly battling their weight. When it comes to diet and weight loss among African-American women, food composition is much more important than merely eating less.
In fact, performing cardio exercise while eating fewer calories (as was done in this study) can trigger the starvation response, which can cause muscle wasting thereby inhibiting fat burning.
Bad deal for the muscular black women in the study in question!
No wonder they didn’t lose as much weight as their white counterparts.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of research in this area pertaining specifically to the most ideal nutrient composition for black women.
However, as a nutritionist with expertise in sports nutrition, I can personally attest that the most beneficial composition for the muscular phenotype is one that includes high-quality carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats very similar to that of the Mediterranean style of eating.
Carbohydrate intake should primarily be comprised of fresh vegetables and fruits, beans, and whole-grain products. Such foods house incredibly large amounts of dietary fiber and numerous vitamins and minerals that support maximal fat burning.
Adequate protein consumption is also essential for maximizing fat burning while also preventing muscle wasting.
Some of the best sources include lean meat, poultry, fish, soy, eggs, and dairy products. Black women in general should make an all-out effort to include oily fish (salmon, tuna, and trout), milk, and eggs in their diets, as these foods greatly promote overall bone and muscle health.
Finally, an intake of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated (omega-3) fatty acids is crucial for muscle preservation and weight loss. Unfortunately, since fat-rich foods are often calorie-dense, women trying to lose weight are often encouraged to snub them. Any weight loss program should include foods rich in these healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, and oily fish).
A diet rich in such fats increases the rate at which stored fat is broken down and essentially burned to produce energy, which leads to weight loss.
With such an emphasis on calorie restriction, the study in question totally failed to address the possibility that an inferior nutrient composition among black women could have influenced the results.
As a scientist, I understand the need to standardize diet and exercise programs for the sake of producing uniformity in results.
But, before such definitive conclusions can be formed in regards to black women’s inability to lose weight like whites, there’s an inherent need to carry out studies involving different nutritional regimens and multimodal exercise that includes a combination of cardiovascular activity and resistance training.