Bloomfield — Before they drank spinach-mango smoothies, discussed how to order low-fat Chinese food or shared their progress in zumba class, the five black women stood up and held hands in a prayer circle.
“Heavenly Father, thank you for the time you set aside for us. Our body is your temple and you have given us all the tools to do better,” said Monica Forbes, who leads the group at The First Cathedral in Bloomfield.
Forbes then mixed up a batch of pea-green smoothies, passed them around and wrote the recipe on a dry erase board in the church conference room: rice milk, frozen mango chunks, fresh spinach and agave nectar.
Thus began a recent meeting of SisterTalk Hartford, a fresh approach to weight loss that blends faith and science to motivate black and African-American women to live healthier lifestyles and lose weight.
The 12-week program is tailored to African Americans, specifically women, who struggle as a group disproportionately with weight control. In Connecticut, 71.8 percent of African-American adults were overweight or obese compared with 58.4 percent of white adults, according to a 2011 Kaiser Permanente study.
“The problem here seems to be that the programs available to help behavior change and weight loss tend to be developed for white, middle-class audiences. So black women were entering these programs and they weren’t as successful,” explained Judith Fifield, professor of family medicine at the UConn Health Center and interim co-director of the UConn Health Disparities Institute.
The UConn Health Center, Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center and Brown University designed the curriculum in collaboration with church leaders. The program, tested in 12 churches in Hartford and Bloomfield, was funded by more than $1 million from the Donahue Foundation and the Connecticut Health Foundation.
In SisterTalk, the group leader kicks off each session with a video featuring a local, black, female minister who delivers a sermonette or a philosophical statement that represents the theme of the night, such as setting goals or getting one’s behavior back on track.
During a recent meeting of the First Cathedral group, the video covered what do when the dieter goes off track, such as missing an exercise class or eating junk food. The video encouraged them not to beat themselves up, but to learn from their mistake and plan for what to do the next time they are tempted to cheat.
Now in the 11th week of the program, the women in the First Cathedral group say they have learned a lot about nutrition, emotional eating and how to reward themselves in other ways besides food.
“I’ve become a lot more aware of what I’m putting in my body through this class,” said Vivian McIntosh, of East Hartford, who has started to read nutrition labels on food containers.
The built-in support and encouragement of like-minded women has been key in helping them reach their goals. Some have begun exercising together outside of class, and they share with each other their problems and success stories in the group.
“The best thing that has happened is that this became a support group,” Lisa Maurice of Windsor said.
The women’s common Christian background gives them a connection that helps them encourage each other and stay on track.
And so far, the program has helped melt away the pounds. Those who went though the program were 2.45 times more likely to lose weight compared to a control group. Twenty-five percent lost 3 percent to 10 percent of their total body weight in the first six months.
“We really want people to be at their best weight. We’re not looking for everybody to be thin, but we do want everybody to be healthy,” said the Rev. Marcus McKinney, a co-investigator of the program and vice president for community health at St. Francis Hospital.
SisterTalk has been so successful it is now expanding to New York City. The program, working with Emblem Health, is now filming local ministers in Queens and Harlem for customized videos for the New York program.