May 6, 2019

A new study from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health provides insight into the food landscape and nutrition-related behaviors on San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos Islands, adding to ongoing research on the global nutrition transition and related changes in diet and lifestyle that lead to obesity and chronic disease.

Margaret Bentley, PhD, Carla Smith Chamblee Professor of Global Nutrition

Dr. Peggy Bentley

Margaret E. ‘Peggy’ Bentley, PhD, Carla Smith Chamblee Distinguished Professor of Global Nutrition at the Gillings School, is co-author of “Dietary Diversity, Food Security, and Body Image among Women and Children on San Cristóbal Island, Galápagos,” which was published online January 28 in Maternal and Child Health Journal.

The Galápagos Science Center – a joint effort between UNC-Chapel Hill and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) in Ecuador to advance science and education related to the island ecosystems and their inhabitants – was dedicated in 2011. At that time, much was already known about the water and food insecurity, rising rates of adult obesity and chronic diseases, and various infectious diseases that impacted the health of inhabitants.

“This particular study allowed us to focus on some of these issues and provide a unique window into what we call the nutrition transition, when changes in diet and lifestyle lead to obesity and chronic diseases,” said Bentley. “The Galápagos Islands provide a perfect setting to explore these important global health issues.”

The team conducted a mixed-method study of the food environment, diets and body image among women and young children who were permanent residents on the Galápagos’ San Cristóbal Island in 2011. Most women (60 percent) in the study reported limited quantity and variety of fresh food due to an unreliable food supply shipped from mainland Ecuador. Because so much food is brought from 600 miles away, often in open barges, the fruit and vegetables are of poor quality, leading to the consumption of an unhealthy diet based on processed food. While 75 percent of women were overweight or obese, 80 percent of children were of normal, healthy weight. The majority of women expressed a desire to be thinner — as is the current Western ideal — though they wanted their children to have larger bodies, a traditional marker of health.

“More than half the women wanted to be thinner, and their own BMI measurements showed that 75 percent of them were in fact overweight or obese. It is of great interest that this desire to lose weight was prevalent across low, medium and high food security,” Bentley said. “This aligns with global patterns of increasing overweight and obesity and also show that these mothers were aware that they were not as healthy as they could be.”

This study adds to UNC’s vast, ongoing body of research on the links between the environment and human health in the Galápagos Islands, added Bentley. She currently is working on a study with Amanda Thompson, PhD, associate professor in the Gillings School’s Department of Nutrition, under Thompson’s two-year National Institutes of Health grant, “Water, Food and the Triple Burden of Disease in the Galapagos, Ecuador.”

Jill Stewart, PhD, associate professor in the UNC Gillings Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering and deputy director of the UNC Galápagos Initiative and Center for Galápagos Studies, and Enrique Terán, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at USFQ, also are co-investigators, and a number of Gillings School students have joined them in their research.

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