A new study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has found that Ethiopian women who immigrated to Israel gained significant amounts of weight, and some became obese, after integrating local foods into their diet and eating fewer traditional dishes.
The study, Dietary acculturation and increasing rates of obesity in Ethiopian women living in Israel, was published in January in the journal Nutrition. The study was conducted by research student Hadas Regev-Tobias under the guidance of Dr. Aliza Stark and Prof. Ram Reifen, at the Hebrew University’s School of Nutrition Sciences at the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment.
Studying 53 women of Ethiopian origin residing in Rehovot, researchers found that after living in Israel for close to 14 years, the women’s average body mass index (BMI, a proxy measure of body fat) was about 25, at the top of the normal range and very similar to the general Israeli population.
A full 42% of participants were categorized as overweight, including 11% categorized as obese.
Compared with their high energy expenditure in rural Ethiopia, participants in the study reported minimal physical activity in Israel. While the women continued to prepare traditional Ethiopian foods, they also incorporated local, less healthy foods into their diets. Their intake of several vitamins and minerals was lower than the recommended levels. Consumption of dairy products, fruits, and vegetables was negligible, while intake of simple sugars was high.
The researchers concluded the immigrant community is at high risk for developing nutrition-related chronic diseases. This is consistent with previous studies that have shown an increase in chronic illness among Ethiopian immigrants.
According to Regev-Tobias, culturally sensitive nutrition education programs are urgently needed to prevent weight gain and illness among Ethiopian immigrant women and children.
One such program, operated by the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture, is the Kiryat Moshe Project, which has operated for over a decade among the Ethiopian people in Rehovot. Educating children and their parents on the principles of good nutrition, the project is named after the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, where a large Ethiopian immigrant community resides. Today, the project has been extended to many Rehovot neighborhoods.
"This study shows the dietary patterns among Ethiopian women in Rehovot and reflects nutritional patterns among Ethiopian immigrants in other cities in Israel," says Regev-Tobias. "The level of education, lack of knowledge, low income and language barriers are just part of the obstacles impacting the nutritional habits."
"The Israeli government needs to lower the prices of foods with high nutritional value known to protect against diseases, primarily the teff flour known for its healthy composition," says Regev-Tobias. An Ethiopian grain, teff, rich in iron and calcium, is used in the most popular traditional Ethiopian food, a pita-like bread called injera.
The study did not examine why Ethiopian immigrants abandoned their traditional diet after moving to Israel, but Regev-Tobias believes several factors are at work: "Firstly, the price of teff flour is substantially higher in Israel. Also, there is limited availability and accessibility of basic products that were common in Ethiopia. Finally, upon arrival to Israel the Ethiopians were exposed to an abundance of products and foods that they mistakenly considered to be healthy. Combined with their desire to assimilate into Israeli society, this led to consumption of these products with greater frequency. Studies have shown that changes in eating patterns is one of the key elements in the acclimation process in a new country."
Regev-Tobias's research is part of a long-term interest in immigrant nutrition at the School of Nutrition Sciences. Prof. Reifen traveled to Ethiopia in the 1990's to help assess the nutritional needs of immigrants arriving in Israel in the Operation Solomon airlift. Dr. Stark, along with a colleague Dr. Eitan Israeli, has been responsible for the Kiryat Moshe Project for over ten years.