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TDH Launches Obesity Awareness Campaign at Five Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 | 07:31am

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Health has entered into a grant agreement with five historically black colleges and universities to implement obesity awareness campaigns on their campuses. The campaigns currently underway will reach students and community members at Fisk University and Tennessee State University in Nashville, LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Knoxville College in Knoxville and Lane College in Jackson.

“The goals of these obesity awareness campaigns are to educate college students and others about the problems associated with being overweight or obese, and to engage them in activities fostering changes to improve lifelong health,” said Lesia Walker, director of the TDH Office of Minority Health and Disparities Elimination. “Statistics show a disproportionate number of African Americans are either overweight or obese, and we have to start reaching people with important messages earlier in life to make a difference.”

More than one-third of adults in the U.S. are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC reports a total of 78 million American adults are obese, defined as having a body mass index of 30 or more. This figure, taken from a 2010 report, represents an estimated 37 million men and 41 million women. Body Mass Index is a simple index of weight for height.

Significant racial and ethnic disparities in the prevalence of obesity exist. In 2011, Tennessee had the sixth highest rate of adult overweight and obesity in the U.S. at 66.5 percent. About two of every three black non-Hispanic adults in Tennessee are overweight or obese. Black non-Hispanic women have the highest rate of obesity among any race or gender group, with approximately one of every two black women in Tennessee being obese.

Extra pounds may contribute to several health problems affecting African Americans, particularly diabetes, high blood pressure, skeletal issues, some types of cancer, heart attacks and heart and kidney failure. The additional weight also leads to higher healthcare costs.

“As cost-conscious employers review candidates for jobs, most will be looking for individuals who will not have higher health costs or higher rates of absenteeism due to weight-related issues,” Walker said. “Consequently, some students have greater challenges than others in finding employment. We are hopeful this is one of many issues students will think about as they become more aware of obesity and overweight problems and steps they can take to have an appropriate body mass index.”

“Addressing populations with health disparities, such as obesity and overweight in the African American community, is a key to improving population health for our entire state,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “We are grateful for the leadership at Tennessee’s historically black colleges and universities as they embrace additional efforts to ensure their students understand their higher risk for these health issues, and that they graduate healthier and better prepared for the challenges of tomorrow.”

“Raising awareness about the health dangers of obesity and overweight is a key first step,” said Charles P. Mouton, MD, dean of the School of Medicine and senior vice president for health affairs at Meharry Medical College. “Meharry Medical College is pleased to be working with other HBCUs in the state as well as TDH to address the health disparities associated with obesity in the African American community. As the country’s health care system continues to evolve, prevention will be a significant tool in maintaining optimal health. Fortunately, in most cases obesity and overweight are preventable.” 

The programs are tailored to the needs of the five schools but share a common theme: awareness of the problem and ways to become healthier. Elements include workshops, new college course content, nutrition training, fitness opportunities, social media outreach and others.

The mission of the Tennessee Department of Health is to protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of people in Tennessee. For more information about TDH services and programs, visit

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