Topical Area: Global Nutrition
Objectives : Malaysia is currently experiencing the nutrition transition, with an increased consumption of refined carbohydrates and fats paralleling an increase in prevalence of obesity and chronic disease. These dietary changes have occurred despite 90% of urban women reporting awareness of the health risks posed by obesity. This study sought to characterize how working women, an understudied population at risk for diet-related chronic disease, navigate food decisions. As Malaysia is a multiethnic nation, we aimed to explore the sociocultural determinants of eating behavior in this unique population.
A purposive design in combination with a convenience sampling approach was used to recruit 24 women ages 26 to 55 of Malay, Indian, and Chinese descent across 15 university departments in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Audio recordings of the individual semi-structured interviews were transcribed and analyzed using grounded theory.
Results : Women identified two important life transitions, getting married and having children, as particularly influential in changing eating behavior. Women reported a desire to eat healthier that was in tension with pressures to cater to the taste preferences of their household members and to accommodate their work schedules. Persistent social norms of eating in group settings and difficulty in accessing foods perceived as nutritious were reported as barriers to changing individual eating behavior. Regardless of education level and marital status, women agreed that the act of eating was closely connected with cultural values and embodied important meanings that took precedence over eating as a health-promoting behavior. While all participants expressed a desire to eat healthier, many reported limited confidence in their ability to consistently give up familiar and tasty foods for healthier alternatives. Shifts in eating behavior such as trying new healthy recipes and adopting a more restrictive diet were reported as most feasible and personally applicable after learning about a family member’s declining health.
Conclusions : In this urban, multiethnic population, increasing the accessibility of nutritious foods and changing cultural perceptions of the relationship between food and nutrition may be important for enabling healthy eating behaviors.
Funding Sources : Yale Sustainable Food Program, Yale School of Public Health