Sheila Frazier’s extra pounds first started sneaking up on her when she was 17. At the time she was raising her baby son, in an abusive marriage, and bingeing on French fries while working at Wendy’s. Over time, her weight ballooned from 125 to 250 pounds. “Each year, I’d try something different to lose weight—the Rice Diet, the Zone Diet. You name it—I tried it,” she says. “Nothing worked for long.”

After telling herself for 25 years that things would get better, Frazier decided to join a free weight-loss program, “Losing it at the Library,” where she learned about healthy eating. Then she and her new friends from the program formed a weekly group to discuss their eating choices and support one another.

Now 44, “single, sassy and satisfied,” the Kansas City, Missouri social worker has dropped and kept off 40 pounds for over a year.

Let’s face it: Breaking a bad habit isn’t easy for anyone. But pile on the crazy levels of stress, racism, poverty and lack of support that many black folks face, and it’s no wonder that we have a hard time stopping smoking and overeating. That said, lots of us do break the chains of bad habits and go on to implement healthy lifestyle choices into our lives. We then feel better and reduce our risk of diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and stroke.

How do people like Frazier overcome life’s pressures to make changes? Just in time for the New Year, we asked the experts for some affordable ideas to bump up the chances that we’ll succeed. Whether it’s getting rid of thunder thighs or a maxed-out credit card, certain steps make it more likely that “our change will come.”

Make a resolution
Tap into the powerful Kwanzaa principles of Kujichagulia (self-determination), Nia (purpose) and Imani (faith) for strength. Then resolve to change. “We’re ten times more likely to succeed if we make a New Year’s resolution,” says psychologist John Norcross, coauthor of Changing for Good (Avon). “These new beginnings renew our energy to move toward our goals.”

Identify what trips you up
Many people fail to examine what lies behind their bad habits. Low self-esteem and insecurity underlie many addictions, notes Long Beach, California psychotherapist Tina Tessina, PhD. We need to understand the emotions that drive the behavior, says Susan McQuillan, RD, author of Breaking the Bonds of Food Addiction (Alpha Books). How? Start journaling: writing down the emotions that you felt when you had the urge to polish off that coconut cake can help you understand the food-mood connection. “I learned that I was eating when I was upset. I was eating to soothe my heart,” says Frazier.

Put pen to paper
We’re much more likely to reach our goals if we write them down. Choose a realistic one—perhaps losing a pound a week—and write out steps as to how you’ll achieve it, such as not shopping when you’re hungry or not eating in front of the TV. Written records help you chart your progress, says Sandra Beckwith, who runs a Fairport, New York workshop on changing your life. Then ask your girls or the brothas to help encourage you to achieve your goals. Make it a “work in progress” that you update regularly.

Get with a group
Whether at church or a community center, black folks are more likely to succeed when they get social support. So start a regular gathering and invite expert speakers to school you. With inspiration from her program and support group, Frazier overhauled her eating habits for good. Now, she substitutes baked chicken, brown rice and vegetables for fried chicken and mashed potatoes.

“It’s still a constant struggle, but I don’t give up on myself,” Frazier says. And nobody’s perfect, so don’t beat yourself up if you backslide. Adjust your written plan so you get back on track, and remember, developing a healthier lifestyle is a marathon, not a sprint. “Celebrate small victories,” advises Beckwith, “and don’t give up until you reach your goal.”

Get a grip on cues to overeat
What causes us to grub too much? Whether it’s the stress of being a single mom or the frustration of working a dead-end job, we often lose track of the toll life takes and forget that we have options. As a result, we may not realize we feel shortchanged or blue. It’s no secret that sisters tend to place family before themselves, says University of Missouri med-school professor Shadrach Smith, MD, an internist and expert on helping black folks control their eating and smoking. “By the end of the day, black women feel deprived and want a big bowl of ice cream,” he says. “They feel they deserve it for all the hard work they did caring for others without much attention to themselves and hardly even a thank-you.” The alternative? “Make a list of nonfood rewards,” Dr. Smith says. “Buy yourself flowers, or get a manicure.”

Lacking the knowledge of how our metabolisms work can also lead to overeating. Holding the bacon is one thing, but skipping breakfast altogether or depriving ourselves when we’re hungry can cause us to pig out later, simply because we’re starving. “Since we burn more calories early in the day, you don’t want your first meal to be right before bedtime,” says Roniece Weaver, an Orlando, Florida registered dietitian. A well-balanced diet that’s high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains like brown rice and low in white sugar and processed foods, such as cookies, pizza and fries, also keeps us feeling full and reduces cravings.

Find better rewards than a smoke
According to the American Lung Association, more than 70% of black smokers are jonesin’ to kick the habit. We’re more likely to succeed if we wise up to the emotional reasons that make us light up. “Some people smoke because they’re lonely or they had a bad day,” says social worker Debra Tarnoff, who runs a Quit Center in Essex County, New Jersey. Others succumb to stress: A study by the University of Kansas School of Medicine found that black folks living under a lot of pressure may have a tougher time quitting. Yet sisters using the nicotine patch benefit from encouragement, particularly at church.

People who kick cigarettes use a wide range of approaches, including going cold turkey, withdrawing gradually, taking Zyban or chewing nicotine gum (some studies show that the patch or gum combined with Zyban can be very effective). Simple behavior changes, like pushing back the time we reach for our first “square,” can help, as can cutting back on the number of cigarettes we smoke, says Tarnoff. Also, know when you’re likely to feel weak, like after dinner, and be sure to schedule a walk or relaxing bath instead.

While firing up a Newport can soothe worked nerves, Dr. Smith recommends finding healthier ways to cool out, such as praying, deep breathing, listening to gospel music or a relaxation CD. Try spicing up food with liquid cayenne pepper, a natural diuretic and antioxidant, says Washington, DC naturopath Andrea D. Sullivan, PhD, ND. “You want to get the toxins out because they create more desire for nicotine.” Eating leafy vegetables and high-fiber fruits, such as oranges, bananas and pears each day helps; so does juicing kale, collard greens or chard (check out a fresh-juice stand). Sullivan also suggests downing at least eight glasses of water daily to eliminate wastes and to suppress your appetite, plus exercising to sweat out toxins.

These programs and sources of information can provide help.

  • Overeaters Anonymous offers a free program of recovery from compulsive overeating., 505.891.2664
  • Weight Watchers has been clinically proven to help people control what they eat through in-person and online meetings., 800.651.6000
  • Not in Mama’s Kitchen The African-American Tobacco Education Network helps provide a smoke-free home., 888.72.AATEN
  • offers information about how to quit smoking., 301.933.9313

Stress Less and Break the Bad Habit Chains

Whether it’s layoffs at our workplace or our baby crying nonstop, we all get wound up by life’s big and small stresses. How can we relax long enough to hear our inner wisdom guide us to make healthy choices? We asked Tallahassee, Florida psychotherapist Samella Abdullah, PhD, for tips.

Turn off the tube
“We’re hooked on Desperate Housewives when we’re desperate women,” says Dr. Abdullah. Rather than listening to the TV, radio and your girlfriend’s drama, try tuning into yourself by writing or drawing in a journal.

Make “me” moments
Tell your big and little babies to give you time to take a relaxing bath. Sip a cup of chamomile tea, light some candles and add lavender oil to the water. Notice what emotions, thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations come up.  

Connect with our Creator
Whether you’re Christian or Muslim, Yoruba or Buddhist, “we are not here alone,” Dr. Abdullah reminds us. “We’re in a universe where somebody higher is controlling what’s going on.” Stay connected by reading spiritual books in between your formal religious gatherings. She recommends The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (Amber-Allen) by shamanic teacher and healer Don Miguel Ruiz.

Get good to grow
“We have a responsibility to develop ourselves to the fullest,” Dr. Abdullah says. As we learn more about ourselves through prayer, meditation, self-study and higher education, we build self-esteem along with the capacity to make better choices. “Toss out what doesn’t work,” she says, including stressful friends and worn-out romances.

Balance your body
Eating high-fiber fruits, vegetables and whole grains helps your body function optimally and decreases fatigue. Supplement with stress-busting B vitamins.

And get moving! Even gentle exercises that won’t make you sweat out your ’do, like yoga and walking, can calm and center you.