Could African migrants hold clue to our unhealthy diets?

A YORKSHIRE team is leading research to help prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes by studying the eating habits of migrating Africans.

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Researchers are investigating the social changes that drive people to adopt unhealthier diets, by observing families in Ghana who migrate to cities from rural areas.

Unhealthy diets are believed to contribute to heart disease and a range of other illnesses, but Sheffield University, which is leading the new research, says little is known about the factors that cause people to eat unhealthily.

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Ghana has seen rapid migration to urban areas, and Professor Michelle Holdsworth who is leading the study, said that as people moved from traditional locations, their eating habits changed from healthy plant-based meals to convenience food diets, rich in fat and sugar, but poor in nutrients.

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She said: “Diets are changing globally, and dietary transition is now happening in most cities of the global south.

“Unhealthy diets are associated with the rapid rise of diet-related diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart diseases and some cancers.”

The project, which has been partly financed by the foundation run by the former Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates, will examine the role played by social environments, family or friends, and access to healthy food.

Dr Amos Laar, who is leading of the study for the University of Ghana, said: “We will undertake novel approaches for collecting data on food consumption and practices, and the factors associated with them.

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“The different approaches will include collecting the views of communities and stakeholders in identifying solutions to the problem of eating unhealthy diets. We will be interviewing women and adolescent girls about what kinds of food they eat by using photography to explore the factors that influence these decisions.”

Ghanaian researcher Dr Francis Zotor added: “We will also be mapping the food environment in people’s neighbourhoods to explore how features of the environment might influence people’s diets to help us identify interventions with local experts and policy makers that could be effective in improving diets and maintaining traditional dietary habits.”