Ethiopian women who have immigrated to Israel have integrated cheaper junk food into their diet at the expense of their traditional dishes, leading to obesity, osteoporosis and other chronic metabolic disease, according to a new study.

Researchers at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem followed a group of Ethiopians who have been living in Israel for at least 14 years to examine how they were impacted by their exposure to a Western lifestyle and Israeli eating habits. Their study, published in the journal Nutrition, showed that their consumption of dairy products, fruits and vegetables was negligible, while their intake of simple sugars was high.

“They were not making a lot of wise food choices and eating a lot of empty calories,” said Aliza Stark from the Institute of Biochemistry, Food Science and Nutrition at the university’s Faculty of Agriculture, who oversaw the research. “Their diet in Ethiopia had more whole grain and legumes. Coming to Israel they were more likely to incorporate hot dogs, hamburgers and so forth, which may be tastier, than to start incorporating fruits and vegetables.”

The study analyzed just 53 women, but researchers said they group reflects the demography of Ethiopian immigrant families who were generally from low socioeconomic strata, have low levels of education and live in small apartments.  

It found that Ethiopian women, who in general are small in stature and light in frame, tend to increase their average body mass index (BMI) to about 25, similar to the larger Israeli population. By that measure, 42% were considered overweight and 11% were categorized as obese. This was in stark contrast to an average BMI of about 19 when they arrived in Israel. 

“In Ethiopia, and especially in rural Ethiopia, there are sugary products or candies in the diet. People ate a little bit of honey or cane sugar, but very little. In Israel they are like a kid in the candy shop. All these options are available so they choose them,” Stark, who led the research together with Prof. Ram Reifen and graduate student Hadas Regev-Tobias, told The Media Line.

The research added statistical proof to what has been evident for years among those dealing with the Ethiopian community. It also reflects similar trends of nutrition transition seen in other immigrant groups such as Latinos and Native Americans in the US. 

Stark explained that this change in diet was simply taking advantage of the “thrifty gene” in humans developed in societies where there was not an abundance of food.

“When someone who has been raised in the background of minimal food abundance comes to a place where everything is readily available, their body has been trained to take advantage of every calorie they eat., so we see that even on not necessarily high caloric intake people are gaining a lot of weight,” Stark said. 

“There is also a huge change in physical activity. In Ethiopia in the morning you get up and walk two kilometers to bring water to cook for the day and of course in Israel you get out of bed and you turn on the faucet,” she said.

Like Yemenite immigrants to Israel in the 1950s, Ethiopians are also suffering from chronic metabolic diseases, like diabetes, which was almost unheard of in Ethiopia. The women are also developing osteoporosis and this could be related to the lowered use of teff, Ethiopian flour known to be high in calcium and iron, which is used to bake traditional injera bread.

“The Israeli government needs to lower the prices of food with high nutritional value known to protect against diseases, primarily the teff flour,” said Regev-Tobias, who carried out a lot of the research. “The Ethiopians were exposed to an abundance of products and foods they mistakenly considered to be healthy. Studies have shown that changes in eating patterns are one of the key elements in the acclimation process in a new country.”

Fekadu Gadamo, director-general of Tene-Briut, an organization dedicated to improving the health of the Ethiopian Israeli community, told The Media Line that they are keenly aware of the nutrition problems.

“People are eating a lot of sweets and fatty meats, things that they didn’t have in Ethiopian and which are readily available here,” Gadamo said. “We are trying to educate people to look back and recall how they ate in Ethiopia and to increase their awareness to the chronic diseases and nutrition.”

Gadamo said traditional Ethiopian dishes are cheaper than eating standard Israeli fare, but take more time to prepare.

“It’s not an economic issue. It’s one of time. Mothers pressured from work or by their desire to prepare things quickly is a factor, but we also have a lack of awareness of these matters,” he said.

He said his organization runs workshops in Ethiopian communities to teach nutrition and cooking and managing a house hold budget. “We try to explain to women why it is important to prepare food which a lot cheaper and healthier than buying a pizza for example.”

Gadamo said they also have a radio program in Amharic on Israel Radio to discuss chronic diseases and nutrition. 

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