Ethiopian women who immigrated to Israel gained significant amounts of weight, some of them becoming obese, presumably after eating fewer traditional dishes and more local food, a recent study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found.

The study analyzed 53 women originally from Ethiopia who live in Rehovot, a town near Tel Aviv. It found that the subjects’ average body mass index (BMI, a proxy measure of body fat) was about 25, which is at the top of the normal range — and similar to the general Israeli population. Forty-two percent of participants were categorized as overweight, and 11 percent were classified as obese.

The researchers, graduate student Hadas Regev-Tobias under the guidance of Dr. Aliza Stark and Prof. Ram Reifen, concluded that the  immigrant community is at high risk for developing nutrition-related chronic diseases, which is is consistent with previous studies.

According to Regev-Tobias, culturally sensitive nutrition education programs are urgently needed to prevent weight gain and illness among Ethiopian immigrant women and children.

“This study shows the dietary patterns among Ethiopian women in Rehovot and reflects nutritional patterns among Ethiopian immigrants in other cities in Israel,” said Regev-Tobias. “The level of education, lack of knowledge, low income and language barriers are just part of the obstacles impacting the nutritional habits.”

“The Israeli government needs to lower the prices of food with high-nutritional value known to protect against diseases, primarily the teff flour known for its healthy composition,” said Regev-Tobias. [Teff is an Ethiopian grain that is rich in iron and calcium and is used in the most popular traditional Ethiopian food, a pita-like bread called injera.]

The study found that many of the women engaged in minimal physical activity in Israel, compared to high-energy lifestyles in rural Ethiopia. They also reportedly ate less healthy food on a daily basis than they used to in Ethiopia, where they often ate traditional Ethiopian food. Their intake of several vitamins and minerals was lower than the recommended levels and their consumption of dairy products, fruits, and vegetables was negligible — while their intake of simple sugars was high.

While the study did not examine why Ethiopian immigrants abandoned their traditional diet after moving to Israel, the researchers offer several explanations: Teff flour is substantially more expensive in Israel than in Ethiopia, and also, many of the women may be mistaken about the nutrition content in the food, or they may be trying to assimilate via their consumption of typical ‘Israeli’ food.