Investigating the food habits and beliefs of pregnant women living in rural Bangladesh : a thesis presented for the partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science in Human Nutrition at Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand
The maternal diet plays a vital role in foetal growth and development, which continues to influence the infant’s health status throughout their life and future generations. In developing countries such as Bangladesh, the maternal diet is limited and malnutrition rates are high, most often due to underlying economic, cultural, political and environmental factors that determine complex human behaviours, including food consumption practices. The aim of this study was to use a mixed method approach to investigate food consumption practices during pregnancy and to explore the role of traditional eating habits and taboos in the maternal diet in rural Bangladesh. Individual interviews were conducted with pregnant women (n=43) from nine villages in Pirganj upazila to collect demographic and individual dietary diversity data. Eight focus groups were conducted, which commenced with the compilation of a harvest calendar (‘ten seed method’) followed by a semi-structured discussion about food habits and beliefs whilst pregnant. Additionally, six women completed a photographic participant observation to enrich research findings. The women’s ages ranged between 15-42 years, with 25 belonging to Ethnic Minority (Adivasi) groups and 18 being Bengali. The mean dietary diversity score was 5.9 and the mean food variety score was 7.2, indicating poor diversity. Adivasi women consistently had lower dietary diversity scores and lower socio-economic status than Bengali women. Cultivated crops were rice, jackfruit and mango, with rice being the main crop, harvested twice a year, and consumed daily by all women. Women’s social status, cultural customs and high poverty levels prevent them from achieving a diet that includes a varied diet during pregnancy. Most women consume fish 1-2 times a week and meat once every 2-3 months. Taboos regarding pregnancy were variable between groups. Examples include: food preparation during an eclipse causing ear/mouth deformities in their babies; a small pregnancy belly being desirable to prevent difficult childbirth; avoiding pineapple and green papaya because it can cause miscarriage.
Eating habits and taboos are engrained into the Bangladeshi culture and poor practices often result in pregnant women’s insufficient consumption of a varied diet. The findings highlight the importance of understanding the relationship between underlying factors of malnutrition when planning sustainable improvements to health and wellbeing. These research findings were successfully incorporated into the Optimal Nutrition During Pregnancy project, which is currently being implemented in the Pirganj community.