Source: The Plate
My joy knew no bounds when I first conceived of my baby. After breaking the news to my mother-in-law, she was so ecstatic and shortly stated to advise me on the so called ‘food taboos’…meaning there are specific foods I can’t eat whiles pregnant. Hmm! Out of respect, I couldn’t ask her the whys? But well, I took it in and thought she was being caring and had more experience than me…A moment to myself in deep thoughts, I suddenly felt NO! this is food injustice! why because, I felt I was left with little to choose from to-eat-to grow the baby but rather, was to stick with those that didn’t have any scientific reasons. This is a similar story of what many women around the world face during pregnancy.
Pregnant women all over the world are confronted with one difficult choice or the other during pregnancy and child birth. This is of essences because, one wrong choice often results in unfavorable consequences for expectant mothers and their babies, a situation which is common in developing countries. In the case of Ghana where I hail from, food taboos are often implicated in determining the care pregnant mothers should receive during pregnancy and child birth which is an important determinant of maternal mortality. I personally think these food taboos are a form of injustice against pregnant women!.
These taboos though created by people who possibly do not have any scientific knowledge passing them, they often fall in line with some scientific facts such as, pregnant women should not consume certain quantities of alcohol in this case, this taboo is necessary to maintain.
I do not dispute the fact that, some food taboos may convincible be helpful during pregnancy. For instance, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists records that, pregnant women should avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury that can be harmful to the developing fetus. Nevertheless, this has more negative impacts.
Most often than not, the roots of these prohibitions are governed by particular phases of the human life cycle mostly associated with special events such as menstrual period, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and traditional engagements such as preparation for the hunt, battle, wedding, naming ceremonies and funerals.
Ghana is home to a variety of mouthwatering nourishing diets, ranging from diverse traditional dishes from each ethnic group, tribe and clan from the north to the south and from the east to west. Foods also vary according to the season, time of the day, and occasion.
The majority of Ghanaian meals consist of thick and starchy well-seasoned stews, sauces or soups saturated with fish, snails, vegetables, meat or mushrooms usually accompanied by such staple foods such as rice, yam, plantains, cocoyam, cassava and foods such as fufu, banku, kenkey, tuozafi, eto, red-red are also mostly eaten with specific stews, sauces or soups. With this variation, the food injustices are also pronounced.
The Eat This, Not That Syndrome
In Ghana, Pregnant women depending on their ethnicity are forbidden from eating snails, eggs, meat, rats, crabs, shrimps, hot foods, animal lungs, and most maize and cassava meals such as banku, kenkey, fufu, kokonte and gari. Adherence to these motivators includes the expectation of safe and timely delivery, avoidance of “monkey babies” (deformed babies); respect for ancestors, parents, and community elders. As a norm, enforcement mechanisms include constant reminders by parents, family members, friends and loved ones and significant others especially during pregnancy and lactation period. To a large extent, socio-cultural, and to a lesser, health concerns motivate the practice whiles stigmatization and community sanctions are deployed sparingly.
Someway somehow, the natural phenomenon of pregnancy has a huge toll on women’s nutritional status even among those who are at liberty to eat anything except foods that are scientifically proven to be unsafe during this period. If this is the clear case then,what will be the consequence on women who are forbidden from almost all the nutritious foods in the name of taboo? Your guess is as good as mine!
The foods listed in the table below are among the countless examples of foods pregnant women in Ghana are tabooed from eating. This also supports literature that indicates that, there are several reasons for the belief and adherence to food taboos and one of such reasons in support of this is cultural thus supporting findings by Onuorah Ayo (2003), who explained most reasons for adhering to food taboos are cultural.
Of interest to this blog are the hidden food injustice that culture portrays in the name of food taboos against pregnant women given their implications for both maternal and fetal health. It is important that, sufficient supply of nutrients is essential to sustain an adequate balance between the needs of the mother and those of the fetus. On the other hand, inadequate supply will cause a state of biological competition between the mother and the conceptus in which the well-being of both is at a weighty risk .To meet the increasingly nutritional requirements of both mother and baby, healthy eating is of paramount importance during pregnancy and lactation.
In as much as all societies have unique traditional beliefs regarding harmful and beneficial foods for women during pregnancy , they are often conveyed and maintained by a combination of familial and cultural practices. These prohibitions usually fail to conform to present day scientific stance about the proper types and quantities of foods needed by pregnant women to safeguard optimal maternal and fetal nutrition and so, are the injustice they also present but mostly overlooked and yet, it’s adverse consequences are enormous.
Most pregnant women in Ghana avoid certain foods out of fear and belief that, these could harm their unborn children. Some of the dietary taboos held are that, pregnant women should not eat certain foods such as snails to avoid giving birth to drooling babies, ‘spirit children’ (children deemed to possess spirits) and babies infected with severe rashes that may consequently led to some form of disability. Children on the other hand are prohibited from eating eggs. Inventors of this prohibition argue that, giving eggs to children is linked with thievery habits when they grow up.
It is noteworthy that, protein and other vital nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and lipid- containing foods when deprived in pregnancy, their adverse consequences such as depletion of these vital nutrients required by the mother and the unborn are most likely.
Furthermore, high caloric foods, and foods rich in vitamins and minerals are the most essential during pregnancy and are those that face the injustice. Such prohibited foods are those that play critical roles in promoting and preserving health throughout the various phases of life particular during pregnancy and lactation.
This blog adds to the body of knowledge in this area but acknowledge the fact that, there is a gap in knowledge and therefore strongly recommends that, further research on food taboos and food security among specific groups especially the vulnerable in society (i.e. pregnant women and children) be conducted. This research could also explore the origin and social perspectives of food taboos. Secondly, because of the nutritional implications for adhering to food taboos in developing countries, where the population keeps increasing while there is a decline in food security, a subtle community nutrition campaign needs to be organized by relevant stakeholders (e.g. extension officers, health workers) to sensitize people about the effects of adhering to food taboos. As a public health practitioner, I suggest now is the time to act!