Austin resident Hattie Moorer loves soul food.

Fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, you name it-the spunky retiree has had it all. But when the foods she loved threatened to end her life, Moorer knew things had to change.

“I grew up being overweight and learning to cook soul food with the unhealthy stuff,” she said. “For years it was all I knew.”

Moorer, along with 45 volunteers from Heritage International Christian Church in North Austin volunteered to participate in a six-month study examining heart disease and obesity among African-Americans.

Led by Dr. William Mosley, a cardiology fellow at Northwestern Memorial’s Bluhm Clinic, the study examined whether interactive and educational workshops would lead to increased awareness of heart disease among blacks. With preliminary data in, results show that Mosley’s grassroots approach of teaching has increased participant’s knowledge of heart disease, and has encouraged the group to make better lifestyle choices.

Mosley, an African-American, said he was interested in exploring the large health disparities that exist in the black community. Cardiovascular disease, including stroke, is the leading cause of death for African-American men and women, killing nearly 100,000 annually, according to the “African-American Heart Health Tool Kit.” The publication was released this year by the American Heart Association. It shows that 51 percent of black women and 37 percent of black men are obese.

“I wanted to do something where I could interact with people and potentially cause change,” Mosley said. “We know there are some knowledge gaps in the African-American community and part of what I was doing was assessing what [the group] did and didn’t know, and then help improve that.”

At the end of the project, which wrapped in December, the group’s weight, cholesterol and blood pressure all decreased. The group lost a total of 76 pounds, an average of 2 pounds per person. Their Body Mass Index-a measure of obesity-dropped by one point, and their blood pressure fell by 4 millimeters, their most dramatic result.

Moorer, who earned the title “biggest loser” after losing 12 pounds and seven inches from her waist during the program-and also another 5 pounds in the weeks after-credits Mosley’s down-to-earth methods of teaching and constant motivation with helping her lose weight.

“Dr. Mosley was so much fun to work with,” she said. “He gets you the information you need and makes it fun. He really got to know us and was very interested in our progress. His personality just pulled out something in [all of us].”

During the initial health screening last October, Mosley found that the group had an average body mass index (BMI) of 33. A BMI of less than 25 indicates a healthy weight, while a BMI of 30 or more indicates obesity, according to the heart association.

Moseley also found that 60 percent of the group had high blood pressure and two had previously suffered from a heart attack or stroke.

To effectively reach participants, many of whom did not believe they were obese, Mosley used a conversational and oftentimes humorous approach. The group met six times over eight weeks. They learned healthy cooking tips, received information about heart disease and learned how to incorporate exercise into their daily lives.

At the end of the project the group held a healthy soul food potluck with recipes from the heart association’s “Healthy Soul Food Recipes” cookbook, which included baked fish and chili made with turkey. The group also held a prayer walk in the neighborhood to encourage residents and other church members to exercise.

“I love to do stuff like this, so it was a lot of fun for me,” Mosley said. “There was a lot of back-and-forth banter and jokes in the classes, and we had a lot of fun together so it didn’t feel like work. I was just a physician in the community talking about diseases that affect this particular community.”

Since completing the project, Moorer has made several changes in her life, most notably in her cooking habits. A lover of soul food, Moorer often used ingredients that were high in salt and trans fat. Now she’s found healthy alternatives. For instance, to make one of her favorite dishes, collard greens, she now uses smoked turkey instead of smoked ribs, ham hocks and soft pork.

“My desire now is to cook with the taste but not with the fat,” Moorer said. “I’m taking what I know and doing better.”

And indeed she is.

Moorer was so inspired by Mosley’s teachings that she created Heart Smart, a church group that teaches healthy living and provides medical information to members of her church.

“I really wanted to continue what we started. I want us to be able to share with the whole church what we’ve learned and be a model for them,” Moorer said. “With Heart Smart we’ll let people know that making small changes can have the biggest impacts.”

Mosley hopes his study will serve as a model for physicians around the city and ultimately across the country. He plans to submit the study to various medical journals for publishing and continue to work with patients from underserved communities.

“On average all of the metrics we were looking at went down and the group’s knowledge went up,” he said. “We improved what they knew and we improved their health-that was the ultimate goal.”