As a child, Dr. Ann Smith Barnes eagerly went to her grandmother's house every Sunday after church for a fried chicken dinner. "It was a weekly tradition, and I didn't want her to make anything else," recalls Barnes.
"There is a pride and cohesiveness within the African American community regarding food. Family events often center around it," Barnes said. "My patients' recipes and cooking styles have been handed down generation to generation. Asking them to change their cooking habits is like asking them to change their ancestry."
Cultural tastes and portion size are two of the obstacles Barnes has to conquer with her obese African American patients. She hopes to learn how to fix these problems by tracking weight-loss success through the African American Weight Control Registry.
Barnes began her career as a primary care physician at Ben Taub General Hospital in Houston. There, she realized many African American patients had similar health conditions, such as high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure. These conditions were worsened by obesity.
She decided to track the traits of African Americans who successfully lost weight and kept it off. The result: the African American Weight Control Registry, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health.
In 2007, 1,500 to 3,000 African Americans who have lost 10 percent of their body weight will be asked to fill out the registry survey. The registry will compare those who have kept off their weight to those who have regained weight. The information will help researchers understand long-term weight loss in African American adults.
In the future, Barnes hopes to create culturally tailored programs to help obese African Americans make healthful lifestyle choices. She also plans to use her research to develop a standard of care for weight management among Harris County Hospital district's low-income and largely minority population. She is coleader of a multidisciplinary team trying to find ways to address care issues such as area hospitals' lack of scales that measure more than 300 pounds.
Fighting obesity is about giving people tools to overcome weight-loss barriers, Barnes believes. "It's okay to eat differently than when we grew up. We need to educate about healthful lifestyle choices. What I enjoy most in my career is empowering people to make better choices in their lives," she said.