To Change Your Life,
You Have to Change Your Mind
My mother, Larvenia Brock, who got pregnant with me, her only child, when she was 44 years old, died from stomach cancer when I was 9. She was diagnosed with the deadly disease the same year I was born.
Larvenia had a very independent, entrepreneurial spirit-she owned a successful cab company in Washington, D.C., which she ran during the week, and operated a thriving juke joint on weekends-but she couldn't translate her business smarts into smart health choices. Though my mother in her younger days was a shapely bombshell with an hourglass figure, she didn't lose her pregnancy weight after my birth and remained heavy throughout my childhood. To add insult to injury, healthy eating wasn't on her radar screen. Believe me, you rarely get stomach cancer unless something is really wrong with your diet. And something was definitely wrong with my mother's diet. Larvenia never met a steak she didn't like; she ate chitlins on holidays and downed pig feet and whiskey on weekends at the juke joint. Though vegetables were plentiful in our house, they were usually prepared with lard or fatback and either deep-fried or slow-cooked until all the nutrients leached out.
That diet finally caught up with my mother, and she became very sick. The overweight powerhouse I had known for my first nine years ended up confined to bed, a tiny, shrunken shell of her former self. During her final days she was unable to keep down even a forkful of watermelon, which had been one of her favorites. Her best friend, Rosetta Lewis, would send me off for it, saying, "Run to the store as fast as your little legs will carry you." I did, thinking if I could just make it to Safeway, get my mom's watermelon, and race back without delay, I could somehow stop the bandit that was robbing me of my precious mother. I was wrong. Even the love and unyielding dedication of a 9-year-old could not stop the inevitable. Finally, the person I depended on for everything, even life itself, died. The devastation of that blow crippled my spirit.
On her deathbed, Larvenia left instructions for Rosetta to raise me, with the assistance of my extended family, to adulthood. Rosetta was a wonderful second mother to me, but unfortunately her health choices weren't any better than Larvenia's had been. She overate on a regular basis. She had lived through the Depression, so throwing away food was unthinkable. A native of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Rosetta was accustomed to eating standard southern fare: greens seasoned with fatback, pig feet, potato salad, chitlins, pork chops, and anything smothered in rich gravy, including crispy fried chicken and rabbit. Over the years, I watched Rosetta battle heart disease, high blood pressure, and breast cancer-all illnesses that probably could have been prevented, or at least delayed or lessened, had she chosen a healthier lifestyle. Despite the duration and variety of her ailments, Rosetta lived to be 86, so I got to have her with me until 1996. Some of you might ask, "What's wrong with that? She lived a long life, right?" Well, yes, she did, but it certainly was a hard one. Her kidneys had failed, her heart problems weakened her, and eight years before she died she suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed on her left side. That she had a long life is true. But was her quality of life what it could have been? I think not.
A Product of the Environment
By now I have learned an enormous amount about food and physical activity and their relationship to health, but when I was growing up I had no concept of a healthy diet. I ate what my family ate: country ham and fried salt fish (sodium count through the roof), scrapple, fried potatoes and onions, fried apples, hoe-cake (a corn bread of white cornmeal and water cooked on top of the stove in a skillet), and my grandma's "stand-up-straight" coffee (we called it that because it was so strong it could almost stand on its own). And that was just for breakfast! Sure, I flirted briefly with being what a friend and I thought of as "vegetarian" when we were in high school, but that was because it was a fad, not a choice I made in the interest of health. For lunch my friend and I would bring cans of tuna and shrimp and make salads. Our food looked more interesting and appealing than the cafeteria's offerings, and we became the cool kids, setting the lunchtime style for the rest of the student body.
Even that casual flirtation with a different way of eating didn't last long, because along with my mother's strong spirit, I also inherited her love of steak and fried foods. Despite the fact that my mother's early death had shown me there is a connection between healthy eating and a healthy life, I developed an addiction to the steak and cheese subs from Trio's. If you've never had a steak and cheese (excuse me, Philly folk, but in D.C. we call 'em steak and cheese, not cheese steaks) from Trio's, a fixture in Washington, D.C.'s restaurant world, you haven't really lived. There's so much seasoned meat on this sandwich, it's as if a cow wandered onto a sub roll and fell apart. All kidding aside, there must be 18 ounces of meat on one-half of the sub, not to mention the slices of provolone cheese that complete the sandwich. But because I'd always been a fairly trim person, I thought I could eat anything I wanted without paying the price of weight gain. And until I turned 26, I did. I weighed somewhere around 99 pounds.
Actually, like a lot of black women, in my teens and twenties I worried not about being too fat but about being too skinny. When you keep hearing how you need to put a little meat on your bones and get yourself some curves, it gets to you. And the truth was, I really was too thin. Although I was a grown woman, I had a childlike body, and I figured surely the brothas would be more attracted to me if I looked more like a woman. So when I was in my mid-20s, even though I was now a practicing nutritionist in hospitals and nursing homes with a lot of knowledge about what a healthy died should be, I began a program of intentionally overeating-and you better believe it wasn't fruits and vegetables, soy, and whole grains I was gobbling down. No, it was those steak and cheese subs I mentioned above, mammoth amounts of ice cream, and all kinds of junk food. I made sure to go to bed on a full stomach every night, and I was eating like this all in the interest of gaining the kind of weight that would make me more desirable. Needless to say, my strategy worked, and I gained plenty of weight-about 30 pounds in all. I thought I looked great, and there were plenty of friends and relatives congratulating me on my new curves.
But eventually, after about four or five years of intentional overeating, life had its way with me. One day I looked at myself in a mirror and in shock wondered aloud, "Who the hell is that following me back there?" It happened while I was out shopping with a friend. As shocked as I was, however, I didn't do anything about it. In fact, things were about to get worse.
The very next year, 1987, when I was 31, I quit my job to enter graduate school in nutrition. It was a really exciting time for me, because not only was I studying for an advanced degree, but I also began my television career, signing on to serve as the nutrition correspondent for a newsmagazine show on Howard University's PBS station. This was the beginning of many years of work on television and radio, which included stints for the Howard PBS affiliate and eventually for Black Entertainment Television, where I had various gigs as health correspondent, general assignment reporter, and medical correspondent. Later I also worked for the University of the District of Columbia, hosting both TV and radio shows. There was even a year when I was on TV and radio for UDC and doing a nutrition news segment for an NBC affiliate.
Needless to say, I seemed to be on the move every minute of the day during those insanely busy years, so I was always grabbing food on the run, snacking every chance I got, eating larger amounts of food more often. With time being such a precious commodity, I developed the habit of scarfing down poorly planned meals of fast food to survive. Although it was a contradiction to be pursuing an education in nutrition while ignoring the information that I was gaining in my own life, that's exactly what I did during all my years of graduate school.
By age 34, I felt like I had finally arrived. I had completed my master's degree in nutrition and broadcast journalism, and I was now a health correspondent on a national news show that aired once a week on Black Entertainment Television. Life was good. But even while I was gaining greater success in my television career, I kept my education goals center stage and began working on a doctorate. As life got ever busier and crazier, I was eating myself into two dress sizes larger than I had ever been in my life.
But even then I kept getting the "you look good with a little weight on your bones" comments. Friends and family applauded the extra weight. So I listened to them, lied to myself that it was okay, and gradually ate myself into a size 8. This may not sound so big to you, but a size 8 body on a frame that's supposed to fit into a size 4 is not a pretty sight. By age 37, I was an overweight nutritionist and television personality. My career was still going well, but my spirits were low, because I knew my life had spun out of control. There I was on television telling people how to eat, but I wasn't following my own advice, and anyone could tell that just from looking at me. The hypocrisy began to consume me. I had to do something about it.
Making the Lifestyle-Diet Connection
Watching the two most important women in my life suffer from diseases that were at least partly diet-related should've scared me straight long before then. And on some level this did happen, inspiring my choice of a career, even though I wasn't putting what I learned in my nutrition classes and preached on my television shows into practice. It amazes me now to think about how I continued to live such an unhealthy lifestyle despite what I knew. Not only did I have my mother and Rosetta as examples, but even before my mother got sick I was aware that black people had all kinds of health problems because of what they ate. I remember that I first made a connection between health and diet in elementary school, when my friend Bryant's dad had to have his legs "cut off"-because of "di-a-bee-tes," Bryant said. I asked my mother why this was happening to him, and her explanation was that people who had "a touch of sugar" had to watch what they ate. Gradually I realized that having a "touch of sugar" described practically everyone in my family and my community. What I began to notice as time marched on was that like Bryant's dad, people did not in fact watch what they ate, and many of their health problems were the result.
My understanding of the role of food in health and disease increased during frequent trips to the hospital with my mother. It was during those years that I first realized I was interested in nutrition. This was thanks to Ruby Cavanaugh, the dietitian who counseled patients at the hospital about their food habits. Ruby, who was a friend of my mother's, used to take me to her office while my mother was being seen by her doctors. Spending time in her office, I first saw up close and on a rather personal level what important work this could be. I was very young, only 9 years of age, but even I could see that "Mrs. Cavanaugh" had something to do with making people feel better through food.
By the time I was old enough to go to college, I knew I wanted to study nutrition as a profession, because my family and my community needed help. The hit list of diseases and conditions that plague us-hypertension, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer-were in my family and all around me. During college I started to make more of a connection between what I was learning in my textbooks and the lifestyle choices people made that led to poor health. And when I did two internships at Howard University Hospital, I saw hundreds of people whose experience mirrored what was going on with my family and in the community. I realized that many diseases these people suffered from began with or were made worse by what they ate.
By the way, it was Ruby Cavanaugh-the same dietitian in whose office I spent so much time almost 20 years earlier, when my mother was in the hospital-who became my teacher when I began my internship in nutrition. So it's in part thanks to her that I now preach the gospel of nutrition and the importance of a healthy lifestyle. I do it because of Larvenia and Rosetta. I do it because of my community, my fellow black people. I do it because I want you, sista-friends, to make the changes necessary to live healthy, full, productive lives. And I do it for myself, too. But I didn't start on my own path to health until years after I'd been preaching it to others.
Taking My First Steps
In order to lose all the unhealthy weight I'd gained by age 37, I first had to make a mental commitment to change. That's everybody's first step, and everyone has a different motivation for doing it, usually some kind of wake-up call having to do with either the way they feel or the way they look. I have to admit that at first my own motivation was mainly vanity. I'd been aware for quite some time that I didn't look as if I was practicing what I was preaching, but what really jump-started my commitment to change-and I'm sure you'll recognize this kind of incentive for weight loss-was a big event that was suddenly on the horizon. I was invited to a formal affair where I would be given the first ever Rovenia Brock Excellence in Journalism Award by Swing Phi Swing Social Fellowship, a women's sorority of sorts to which I had belonged since college. For this very swanky affair I wanted to look my best. Showing up without all curves tightly tucked into place, arms buffed and toned, and thighs and butt slimmed simply would not do. What would people think?