Nordic food makes immigrants sick

November 10, 2012 - 06:29

They tend to overdo the fatty foods and carbohydrates. Immigrants from South Asia suffer from the unhealthy diets they adopt in Norway.

A less common choice in Islamabad than in Oslo. (Photo: Colourbox)

The dietary changes increase fatness, obesity and type 2 diabetes. These are well known risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

“An alarming number of South Asians who’ve immigrated to Norway have contracted diabetes by an age of 30 to 60, compared to the share of ethnic Norwegians in the same age group.”

So says Gerd-Holmboe-Ottesen, a professor at the University of Oslo’s Institute of Health and Society.

The average prevalence of type 2 diabetes among South Asian women and men in the 30-60 age group is upwards of 20 percent, whereas in the ethnic Norwegian population it’s just 4-5 percent.

Holmboe-Ottesen is first author of a new meta-study comprising nearly 100 scientific articles from Norway and other European countries. 

Opening a Pandora’s Box

Many immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, whom this study covers, had healthier, traditional diets back home.

“Generally their consumption consisted of homemade breads using ample amounts of whole grains, as well as lentils, rice, beans and vegetables, but little meat, candy, soft drinks and fast food.”

“In Norway and other European countries they have ready access to fatty, high-calorie foods that are high-status fare in the countries they come from. And these are tasty foods,” says Holmboe-Ottesen.

Another challenge is that many immigrants from Islamic cultures serve sugary beverages such as colas with meals:

“They have large families and often dine with relatives or friends - and they serve soft drinks containing lots of sugar.”

Genetic disposition for diabetes

The professor points out that South Asians have an inherant increased risk of obesity and diabetes 2.

"Immigrants from countries like India and Pakistan risk contracting such nutrition-related illnesses earlier here than in their home countries.”

A bigger share of the population in these countries has genetic dispositions which increase the risks of such diseases.

“And they’re raising the risks when they settle in Norway and start eating more fatty foods, dairy products and rapid-acting carbohydrates that cause blood-sugar fluctuations.”

“They also gain weight more readily than most ethnic Norwegians,” says Homboe-Ottesen.

Status food and the price of vegetables
Professor Gerd Holmboe-Ottesen of the University of Oslo. (Photo: Fransesco Saggio)

She thinks immigrants’ concepts of status foods are closely linked to why their diets change in new countries.

“In many South Asian cultures any dairy product is prestigious. In less affluent societies meats and dairy products are status foods, as are soft drinks and fast-foods.”

“These are abundant foods in Norway, whereas fruit and vegetables are costly here. Many immigrants are confounded by this because such healthier foods are cheaper in the countries they come from.”

Raising consciousness

Making a change in this development requires early prevention efforts prior to the contraction of serious cases of obesity or type 2 diabetes.

“Simply put, the challenge is to get immigrants from South Asia change their present diets, so fewer of them fall ill,” says the professor.

More knowledge is needed in this field, but she thinks it’s important to establish diets based on the immigrants’ traditional fare:

“For instance they should continue to eat beans and lentils and they don’t need to copy the consumption by ethnic Norwegians. Quite a few ethnic Norwegians are already struggling to switch to a healthier diet.”

Pregnant women should have blood sugar tested

Holmboe-Ottesen doesn’t think issuing special dietary advice to immigrants is the solution but she stresses that health personnel need to be better acquainted with immigrant cultures.

“A mounting number of doctors and nutritionists with immigrant backgrounds are being educated, so I expect we’ll be seeing a positive development here.”

She also thinks it is advisable to start measuring blood sugar levels among pregnant women from South Asia when they go in for their check-ups.

“Admonishing people to switch to healthier eating habits isn’t much use. You need to convey knowledge which they can use to take control of their own lives. For instance, they need to learn what causes high blood sugar – it’s much more than sugar itself,” she points out.

Changes in the traditional diet of immigrants don’t occur solely after they emigrate, but such changes do tend to accelerate when they become immersed in a Western foreign culture, according to the study, which has been published in the journal Food & Nutrition Research.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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