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Nutrition Study Finds Surprising Results on Eating Habits of African American Mothers

by Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
posted October 14, 1998

Moms may need a dose of their own good advice about eating right, according to a new study by Berkeley nutritionist Joanne Ikeda.

Studying three generations of African American subjects and comparing how healthfully daughters, mothers and grandmothers in the same family ate, Ikeda found -- surprisingly -- that for the mothers of the study, the higher the income, the worse the diet.

Most U.S. nutrition studies involve both men and women, and have found "a lower income results in family members being less adequately nourished, whereas a higher income results in members being more adequately nourished," said Ikeda.

But her study, which focused exclusively on women, found the opposite was true for mothers. Women who work outside the home are more likely to have a higher income, she said, but they also have less time to prepare healthy food.

Ikeda's study focused on African American women as part of an effort to teach California's county family and consumer science advisors the most culturally appropriate ways to help the diverse populations they serve. Data will be used to prepare training materials, including a slide presentation.

Ikeda said more research is needed to determine if her findings apply to women of all ethnicities. Cross-generational studies of this type are rare, but "certainly women of many races are working and you have to wonder if they are paying a price in their diet," she said. "They may just grab what they can get."

Of the three generations of African American women in the study, mothers in households with an average monthly income of $533 per person consumed less than two-thirds of the recommended daily allowance for three or more vital nutrients.

However, mothers in households where the monthly income was only $305 per person had a much more adequate diet, which provided two-thirds or more of the recommended daily allowance for at least 12 of 15 nutrients. These nutrients included all the major vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamins A and C, iron and magnesium.

"Working women appear to pay less attention to their food choices," Ikeda explained.

While these mothers may diligently attend to the needs of the family members around them, "they are not paying as much attention to their own needs," she said.

The study spans 10 California counties, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Alameda, San Bernardino, San Joaquin, Alameda and San Diego counties. Average age for the 176 participants in the study was 21 years for daughters, 42 years for mothers and 65 years for grandmothers.

The study also found that:

• Eighty-five percent of women who ate better participated in at least one daily family meal, such as a family dinner, whereas only 53 percent of poorly nourished women did.

• There was no significant correlation between the dietary quality of mothers and daughters, whether or not they were living together.

• Within each generation there were a similar number of better and more poorly nourished women. However, the type of food selected by each generation was often different. Grandmothers, for instance, gained vitamins from traditional greens, and their granddaughters from trendy fruit and sports drinks.

• Despite media attention on teenagers with eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, it was the mothers and grandmothers in this study who most often resorted to inappropriate dieting techniques. While no daughters reported having "made themselves throw up in the last year," 12 percent of the mothers and three percent of the grandmothers said they had.

• Dietary quality was significantly better for low-income women enrolled in the Women, Infants and Children Program, showing that the federally funded nutrition program is having a positive and healthful effect.


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