by Kimberly Allen R.N.
As a volunteer working with the very poor I frequently encounter other volunteers and missionaries that have come to offer their help. One day a missionary asked me, as a nurse, why the women were so heavy. He said that it’s difficult to find sponsors to help families when they see pictures of adorable small children with their over weight mothers standing behind them.
Poor women tend to be overweight more because of the types of foods they eat than the quantity of food they eat. Metabolism is different in everyone to begin with and most of these mothers have had 4-6 children well before the age of 30. They also don’t have the means to get the good vegetables, ie. brocoli or green beans, the only vegetable frequently in their diet is corn. Corn, though it is a vegetable, is very high in carbohydrates and sugars. Nutrition education is virtually non existant, but even if educated it would be difficult to improve their diets without help. The average diet of the poor consists of rice, beans and platano or better known as plantain.
Plantain is a vegetable that looks like a green banana and is similar to the potato. They grow in trees in the jungle where so many of the poor live giving them access, they are also plentiful and inexpensive to buy. Though it does have nutritional value like rice both are high in carbohydrates and starch. Many of the meals I’ve seen consist of rice, plantain and pasta. A plate full of carbohydrates and starch.
When possible boiled kidney beans are included as a protein replacement for meat. Though kidney beans are high in protein they are also high in carbohydrates. Then if that isn’t enough carbohydrates and calories add the flour tortilla, which has virtually no nutritional value and you have a diet that has minimal nutritional value but is high in calories and so quenches the hunger pains.
Another contributing factor is the lack of regular medical care. Many of these people only receive medical care or treatment when a medical mission group visits. Though these groups are a blessing they are also limited by time and supplies, so the children get seen and treated first and if there’s time and supplies the adults are seen and treated on a first come first serve basis. Also, birth control is virtually non existant, especially in the poor communities. Many of the women in the poor communities have an average of 4 children by the time they’re 25yrs old. They all nurse their children for at least 2yrs as they can’t afford formula or baby food. To keep their milk coming in they need to eat and the foods they have access to are high in carbohydrates and starch.
This phenomenon of overweight poor is everywhere. Even in the US I have heard comments mumbled like if they’re so poor why are they so fat?. The poor eat what they can afford, rice, pasta and potatoes, other favorites are mac and cheese in the box, white bread, hot dogs and bologna. All foods that will fill the stomach at a low cost but offer little if any actual nutrition.
This type of diet not only raises the blood sugar it makes you tired and sleepy especially in the tropical heat. It’s usually hottest mid-day to mid-afternoon, so in this culture they eat lunch and then rest during the hottest part of the day, this practice also inhibits digestion and alters metabolism. Diets that are so high in carbohydrates and starch are the leading causes of obesity especially among the poor and lead to numerous other health problems.
Education and access to better nutrition are the key to solving the problem. Education should be aimed at not only the poor but those trying to help them. Just as important is access to adequate medical care.
So please don’t jump to conclusions or ‘judge a book by it’s cover’, things are rarely what they seem.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.