Junk food is not the only factor that contributes to obesity. Seemingly healthy traditional food can also contain excess calories and fat and thus cause a range of severe health issues such as type 2 diabetes, cancers and hypertension. Evidence from previous studies suggests the reason for this lies in the way the food is prepared and cooked. The Ghanaian diet maintained by migrant women living in the United Kingdom appears like a good illustration of this problem. Indeed, despite the fact that they don’t adopt local practices of eating unhealthy occidental food, this community exhibits an abnormally high prevalence of obesity and associated diseases. «There is an extant of literature on the effect of unhealthy diets and the local food environments on overweight and obesity in women, Dr. Hibbah Osei-Kwasi points out. However, very little is known about the relationship between culinary practices and overweight or obesity among migrant women. There is the assumption that traditional diets of migrants are healthy and that they become unhealthy when migrants change their diets to more ‘westernized’ ones. But is it really the case for all migrants?», she asks. An AXA grantee post-doctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield, Dr. Osei-Kwasi aims to answer that question by investigating what goes on in the kitchens of Ghanaian women residing both in the UK and Ghana. The overall objective of the project is to lay the building blocks for the development of context-specific and culturally sensitive nutrition education to improve the traditional diets of African women, through channels such as electronic and social media.
«I first came to the UK in 2003 on a visit, recounts the researcher. I was interested in people’s dietary behaviors and diet related conditions, perhaps because I was studying nutrition at the time. I couldn’t help but notice that many of the African women living in the UK, including my close family and friends appeared to be overweight or obese. Their health bothered me, so I started to look for answers. That’s when I realized no research had been conducted on the subject. As a researcher, I felt I had to do something.» With obesity prevalence being higher in migrant women, the researcher, a Ghanaian herself, decided to focus her PhD research on the dietary behaviors of Ghanaian migrants. «This study showed that they maintained traditional diets following migration and perceived their traditional dietary practices as healthy and dissociated this from overweight or obesity.» In her current project, the nutritionist wants to go even further. Her new objective is to understand exactly why Ghanaians cook the way they do and how. «I’m going to observe, not just ask. I’m going to go to people’s home, look at them cook, see which ingredients they use, how much salt they put in, how much fat, oil, spice, what types, how long they cook it for… But that’s not all, I also want to understand why they cook the way they do. So, I’m going to ask how they perceive the Ghanaian traditional diet, why they think it’s healthy, and if they’re willing to adopt healthy cooking practices». «I will also use existing data to investigate the effect of different recipes and reported cooking methods used by Ghanaian women in Europe and Ghana on the glycemic load (GL) of Ghanaian foods, she adds. GL is a measure that estimates how much the food will raise a person's blood glucose level after eating it.»
Behind the scene: a look inside Ghanaian women’s kitchens
Instead of relying on reported behaviors like it is the case in most nutrition studies, she and her team will rely on the observation of actual food preparation methods within the household. When they can’t visit the houses, they will notably rely on photovoice interviews, a method that relies on photographs to gain insight into practices otherwise invisible. They will use secondary data, study documentaries such as YouTube cooking videos of traditional recipes like Jollof rice, fufu and palm nut soup. A Community Readiness Model (CRM) will also be used to assess whether Ghanaian women are ready to change unhealthy habits. «All this information will help gain insight into what to focus on and how to frame culturally sensitive interventions aimed at improving their diet, both in terms of health and in terms of sustainability. » Additionally, the insight gained from the study will help identify pathways that may make Ghanaian women vulnerable to foodborne diseases, another major cause of illness, especially in the Global South. For instance, the research team will pay attention to unsafe practices such as washing uncooked meat or fish, or keeping them outside the fridge. The findings will be disseminated widely in both Ghana and the UK through deliberative workshops with Ghanaian community groups and the media.
By taking an in-depth look behind the scenes of Ghanaian’s households, Dr. Hibbah Osei-Kwasi’s project promises to provide precious and unprecedented knowledge about several dietary causes of the preoccupying prevalence of overweight and obesity in this community. By focusing on the preparation methods, as well as willingness to adopt healthy cooking practices, the team’s approach will contribute to the development of bespoke interventions to reduce the onset of obesity as well as prevent micronutrient deficiencies.
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