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No Fries With That

From fatty and fried to lean and green: How I transformed my relationship with food

By Desmond Flagg

Salt, fat and sugar.

As a young boy in Atlanta, the unhealthy but tasty combination amounted to a major food group in my diet.

Fatback, deep-fried pork rinds and fried chicken were menu staples at home. Eating out was usually a trip to the six-dollar, all-you-can-eat buffet, where second and third helpings ensured that our plates were never empty.

It was hard to avoid the Southern fried food culture, but family dynamic also figures in my food narrative. My mother was a single parent, raising two boys, working and going to school for a master's in social work. She didn't have much time for home cooking. With no full-service grocery close by, fast food and pizza were cheap and easy options.

Over time, the fat- and sugar-laden diet was a recipe for disaster. I grew into a fat kid and an easy target for schoolyard jokes. ("Better not mess with him; he'll sit on you!") Our inner-city apartment complex was far from parks and playgrounds, so we didn't get much running-around time. And my mother, worried about our safety, told us to stay inside until she returned home from work or school.

Bring on the television and potato chips.

When I was 10, everything changed. We moved to Ann Arbor so my mother could pursue further graduate work at the University of Michigan. We lived in student housing in a neighborhood where kids threw the Frisbee after school or played basketball at a nearby park. At our public middle school, phys ed was mandatory, the cafeteria had a salad bar, and there was a strong extracurricular sports program.

Soon, the pounds started to come off.

I was exposed to new foods (artichokes!). We learned that baked could taste as good as fried. I played high school football and began to make the connection between healthy eating and improved performance-on the field and off.

After I graduated from Columbia University and took a job as a social worker in the South Bronx, I began to think about food on a deeper level.

The endless eating options I had enjoyed as a college student-vegan and vegetarian, farmers markets, ethnic restaurants of all kinds-narrowed considerably. The bodegas and corner stores limited residents to the familiar high-fat and processed foods of my childhood.

The experience sparked my interest in public health, specifically in the areas of obesity risk and improving urban food environments. So I returned to school to learn about food disparity as a social justice issue. I earned my MPH at Hunter College, and now my PhD dissertation examines the role that father involvement plays in determining a child's risk for obesity, focusing on Black and Hispanic non-resident fathers. The issue has particular resonance for me, as the father of a 4-year-old girl.

Having been overweight as a child, I'm committed to making sure that Emma grows up with healthy, fresh food on the table. I don't keep soda, candy or cookies in the house. For snacks, there's fruit-and the occasional granola bar.

Emma also knows that I'm serious about staying fit. My football days are over. Now bodybuilding is my sport of choice, and I've actually won a couple of competitions. I launched a website-Dads of Steel-as a resource for fathers, with workouts, healthy recipes and parenting tips.

I put a lot of effort and passion into living a healthy life-and it works. However, it's not a regimen that we can expect most people to adopt. With more than two-thirds of U.S. adults overweight or obese and 18 percent of children classified as obese, this epidemic needs bold initiatives from public health officials, educators and researchers.

I hope to play a role in the research or policy arena to tackle chronic obesity with the same urgency that informed anti-tobacco and clean air campaigns.

Every child deserves more than a steady diet of Happy Meals.