When Junk Food Finds Samoans

Obesity isn’t just a problem for Americans. Recent modernization in Samoa, a previously isolated island state in the South Pacific, has resulted in a shift of dietary habits. Now, Samoans tend to exercise less and eat a modern Western diet, which consists of processed foods and higher amounts of saturated fats and carbohydrates. An upward trend of heart disease, Type II diabetes, and metabolic syndrome has occurred in the population.

Researchers at Yale and the University of Michigan have identified three different types of dietary patterns in Samoa: a modern diet, a primarily traditional diet with some modern foods, and a primarily modern diet with some traditional foods. Using metrics such as waist circumference, blood glucose, triglyceride, and cholesterol levels, the researchers found that those who consumed a mixed-modern diet were the healthiest. First author Dongqing Wang has several explanations for this surprising result. First, the relatively small amount of red meat consumed offers some health benefits without the negative effects. Second, the intake of coconut oil in the mixed-modern diet also provides cardiometabolic benefits.

Wang says, “The primary takeaway from this study is that this is the first time these mixed-dietary patterns have been observed in the Samoan population.” In future research, Wang wants to understand why more traditional foods are on the decline, as well as how factors such as education, occupation, and socio-economic position influence dietary styles. Such research will elucidate how Western influences are impacting the health of other communites around the world.