Tracye Lynn McQuirter, a D.C.-based public health nutritionist, knows about racial disparities in health outcomes. She understands how centuries of systemic racism created and sustain the inequities. And she realizes that remedying the problem could take generations, if not forever.

But even as she acknowledges the structures that have led to the inequities — poor access to quality health care and clean air and water, for example — McQuirter believes there are things that African Americans can do to boost their outcomes. And nothing would have a greater and more immediate impact than eating healthier foods.

“It is crucial that we not tiptoe around this issue,” McQuirter told me. “People have the power to take back their health based on what they eat.”

She advocates for a whole-food, plant-based diet, saying that such a diet “can decrease your risk of getting the top four killers by 80 percent or more.” The top four killers are heart disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease and lung disease.

McQuirter, 53, specializes in black women’s nutritional health. Disturbed by high rates of chronic diseases among that group, she announced in February a “vegan challenge,” a plan to enlist 10,000 black women for a journey to wellness through dietary change.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, delaying the scheduled May 1 launch of her plan even as the virus confirmed the importance of her mission. While no one is immune from the disease that stems from the virus (known as covid-19), people with chronic illnesses are more likely to die once infected. And black people, who suffer disproportionately from chronic illnesses, are also dying in disproportionately high numbers from the virus.

Make no mistake, an epidemic of chronic diseases has been ravaging black America for some time, killing hundreds of thousands year after year after year.

The latest figures from the National Vital Statistic Reports show that 335,667 black people died of mostly preventable causes in 2017. Heart disease killed 78,161; cancer killed 69,872; cardiovascular disease killed 19,088; diabetes killed 14,798; respiratory diseases killed 11,217. And on and on it goes.

“I don’t want to play the comparison game but where is the national outcry over all of those deaths?” McQuirter asked. “That’s nearly 800 black folks a day dying mostly from diet-related diseases.”

A whole food, plant-based diet means eating only fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes; no meat, dairy or animal byproducts. Studies have shown that such a diet can not only help prevent certain chronic diseases but, in some cases, also halt and even reverse progression of the disease.

McQuirter cited the benefits that her mother — 83-year-old Mary McQuirter — has accrued since she became a vegan at age 50.

“She has no chronic diseases and is on no medications,” Tracye McQuirter said. “She exercises six days a week and her doctors say she has the health markers of someone 30 years younger.”

Both of her mother’s parents died in their 60s: the father from heart disease, the mother believed to have suffered a heart attack.

“People think that because a parent had a chronic disease, they are destined to get it, too,” Tracye McQuirter said. “I tell them it’s not the genes, it’s the greens. Start eating more leafy greens; eat more fruits and vegetables.”

McQuirter grew up in the District, attended Sidwell Friends School, then Amherst College and Howard University. She earned a master’s degree in public health from New York University. She became a nutritionist with the University of the District of Columbia’s Center for Nutrition, Diet and Health, and served as director of the Eat Smart program with the Veg Society of D.C., an educational nonprofit that promotes the social and health benefits of plant-based diets.

In 2018, she and her mother co-authored a book, “Ageless Vegan.”

As a public health nutritionist, she works with various community groups throughout the Washington area, helping to analyze systemic issues that prevent access to education about nutritious foods as well as the food itself.

Then she helps create programs and pushes for policies that will help residents to overcome those obstacles.

In her 30 years teaching nutrition, McQuirter said, she has never met a mother who didn’t want to be healthy and who didn’t want to raise healthy children.

“After doing talks for single mothers in public housing, some of them will invariably stay after class and say to me, ‘This is my situation, what can I do? I will do whatever it takes.’ And they mean it. When you give people the information, they will find the vegan food store; they will find the community garden and the farmers market. They will find a patch of earth and start growing vegetables; put a pot of soil on the balcony and start growing herbs.”

With no end to the pandemic in sight, McQuirter has rescheduled her vegan challenge for October. Hopefully the virus curve will be flattened by then.

“The virus has put in stark relief the need to really get serious about what we eat,” McQuirter said. “This is not about boosting immunity to survive a pandemic. It’s about getting healthy.”

For those 10,000 black women she hopes to enlist in her challenge, that will mean teaching them how to make vegan “comfort food” desserts. She will offer webinars and online support groups to help them.

As McQuirter sees it, fighting systemic injustice is crucial, for blacks and whites alike. There will be work to be done in a post-coronavirus world to fix the unequal access to health care, safe neighborhoods and quality food. But the struggle can’t be sustained without taking care of yourself.

“Improving our health is political activism,” she said.

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