While clients of refugee backgrounds may not identify eating problems themselves, many healthcare professionals working with refugee clients have noted that adjustment to diet is a significant factor in both physical and psychological health, and related to integration and autonomy.
Many clients have noted that they don’t have enough information to make the ‘healthy choice’ in Australia. Accordingly, it is worth noting, and discussing, a person’s lifestyle and dietary practices during the initial health assessment and on an ongoing basis, in primary care and in other settings. Primary care providers should consider the following key messages which will assist to empower newly arriving refugees, asylum seekers and others to make a ‘healthy choice’.
- The junk food diet – junk food is cheap and readily available, and may be a popular choice for some families, as unfamiliar ingredients can be daunting to prepare and junk food provides a less complicated alternative. Explaining how to read labels and the amount of sugar (often usefully characterised as ‘energy’) in sugary drinks and fast food, as well as the long term health effects of poor dietary intake, enables individuals to make different dietary choices.
- Accessing traditional food – traditional foods from a person’s country of origin are more often than not healthier than many Australian alternatives. Assisting families to identify shops and suburbs where they can buy healthy, familiar traditional foods and ingredients from their country of origin greatly assists in the settlement process and empowers communities to feel more in control of daily life. Discussing diet and nutrition in relation to these foods is often appreciated.
- Physical activity – individuals may find that after settlement in Australia there are reduced opportunities for physical activities due to reliance on motorised transport, lack of familiarity with suitable locations to exercise, fear of walking in the streets and limited time for self-care. Some clients may not be familiar with exercise regimes that are not incidental to daily routine. You may like to discuss the impacts of physical activity due to unemployment, which may exacerbate feelings of anxiety and depression and could lead to problems of rapid weight gain.
- Rapid weight gain and obesity – excessive food consumption (particularly of foods high in sugar and fat) as a response to prolonged periods of deprivation is not uncommon, and some parents may be unwilling to place restrictions on children’s food intake sure to previous scarcity of food. Depression may also be a significant factor in overeating. It is important to discuss quality and quantity of food to be consumed for a healthy diet.
*This information has been adapted from Promoting Refugee Health: A guide for doctors, nurses and other health care providers caring for people from refugee backgrounds pp.104-109.
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