Shedding cultural norms, weight

The Baltimore Sun

Health guru Ian Smith paced back and forth on an outdoor stage and yelled out to his audience, at times pleading, cajoling and even bargaining with them to loose weight.

"Can you give me 30 pounds?" he roared.

The mostly African-American crowd that gathered to see him at the Inner Harbor yesterday shouted back with approval.

"You, the brother in the white shirt, what can you give me?" Smith said, singling out a tall, heavy-set man.

Forty pounds, the man suggested.

"Give me 60," Smith said. "Let's keep this real."

Smith, a tall, slim, 37-year old physician, is one part motivational speaker, one part celebrity journalist and one part author. He talks about losing weight with the zeal of an activist pushing a political cause.

He says black people, and black women in particular, are "off the charts" in terms of obesity, and he is pleading with them to become healthy. He says he is starting a national campaign because he wants African-Americans to fend off diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, strokes and other medical ailments related to being overweight.

The Baltimore rally yesterday was the second stop on his 14-city tour promoting his new book, Extreme Fat Smash Diet, a sequel to last year's The Fat Smash Diet: The Last Diet You'll Ever Need, and trying to persuade African-Americans to shed a collective 50 million pounds.

Smith and others made brief speeches yesterday, but most of the time was given to musicians, including R&B; singers Marques Houston and Monica and rapper Biz Markie.

In Maryland, 31 percent of black adults were considered obese in 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. That compares with 22 percent of white adults considered obese and 19 percent of Hispanic adults, according to the agency's web site.

"We're not simply trying to get people to walk a mile," he said, sitting at a table in a tent before going onstage yesterday. "We're trying to change an entrenched culture."

"This is about us caring about us and not dropping dead from diseases we can prevent," Smith said. "Start eating more fruits and vegetables. We don't have to ask anyone to help us."

Part of the problem, he said, is that black communities accept fuller figures more readily than other ethnic groups. "It is not a stigma to be large," he said.

Smith also said the traditional African-American diet is laden with fatty foods. "We grew up with Southern cuisine of fats, sugars and frying everything."

Smith said he picked up new eating habits as an undergraduate at Harvard University, where he learned to like roast beef, grilled chicken, low-fat milk and other staples of a heathy diet.

Others who attended the rally yesterday echoed Smith's words. "We're still eating like slaves," said Calvin Coates, 56, of Baltimore, who was waiting in line for a free jump rope. "We cook our vegetables to death."

Coates heard about the event on the radio, and came with his girlfriend, hoping the festivities would help inspire him to slim down from 210 to 190.

One tent was staffed with medical assistants performing health screenings. Mary Coleman, 63, waited nervously while an aide wrapped a Velcro cuff around her arm to take her blood pressure. "It should be good," she said.

But it wasn't.

Her body mass index, however, was just right. She has diabetes in her family and keeps close tabs on her health. "I'm a little happier now," she said.

Willis McGahee, the Raven's new running back, wore a dark T-shirt and jeans and was dripping with diamond and platinum jewelry. He signed T-shirts emblazoned with the words "50 Million Pound Challenge." Asked why he came, he said: "It just felt like it was a good cause."

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings described the day as "a party with a purpose" and said he had been inspired to lose 30 pounds after meeting with Smith several months ago.

"It wasn't about [wanting] to look better," the Democrat said. "I wanted to live."

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