At the Heart of Obesity: Understanding Food Choice of Pacific Islanders in South Auckland, New Zealand

Kellogg/Kroc Undergraduate Research Grants

Adviser: Steve Reifenberg

Final Report:


My project is titled At the Heart of Obesity. From the start, my project’s goal has been to better understand the causes and contributors to the obesity problem in the Pacific. Specifically, I aim to understand these factors among Samoan people in Samoa and in New Zealand.

With at least 80% of people in Samoa being classified as overweight, Samoa is facing major issues with many long-term consequences of obesity, including but not limited to heart disease, diabetes, mobility issues, and increased cost of healthcare. There have been many explanations as to why the obesity epidemic has taken off in Samoa. During my literature review, I found that these explanations include recent changes in the availability of fast food, globalization, changing lifestyles, and even genetics. With all these possibilities, I discovered a gap between the potential causes of the issue, and the policies being implemented to attempt to solve them.

I initially intended to conduct a similar project to the work I did last summer in Accra, Ghana. I thought that I would conduct short surveys with a lot of people in order to better understand the drivers of daily food choices, and potentially see what sort of causes or factors led them to choose fatty or low nutrient foods. I thought that by better understanding the reasons people choose to eat certain foods, I could better understand how to potentially change them.

Once I arrived, however, my research took a turn. I realized early on that underneath almost all food decisions made by Samoans, is a hint of their culture. Samoan food culture is one of the most fascinating topics I have studied and is very underrepresented in the literature about the Samoan obesity epidemic. I also had unexpected opportunities through connections I made with members of the United States Embassy in Auckland and Apia, as well as connections with the United States Chamber of Commerce, the University of Auckland, Apia Hospital, and local Samoan leaders stationed in South Auckland. These interviews were not a part of my original plan, but they opened a whole new world of understanding for me about this issue.

Though through a different lens then I originally intended, I think my research was very fruitful. I had the opportunity to meet with many people that sit on all different sides of this issue. One theme that kept coming up was the separation between the policies being put forth by the New Zealand and Samoan governments, and the actual impact they were having in the lives of the people they affected. I became focused on meeting with everyone I could to better tell the stories of Samoan food culture, and how some people were defying the odds and remaining healthy.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from the experience is that the issue of obesity in Samoa is not a simple issue: it cannot be solved simply by telling people to eat better as has been attempted in the past. If there is to be a solution to this problem, it will come from a multi-faceted effort with an understanding of Samoans at its core. While it is a complex issue that needs to be addressed from many sides, I saw promising results with regard to food access, food culture, and the role of the family in making food decisions.

One of the most obvious problems facing Samoans is the reliance on imported foods. Though fruits and vegetables are readily grown and available on the islands, the diet and taste of Samoans have shifted towards meat, salt, and fat. And as the island cannot support this taste on its own, nor has enough capital to import high-quality products for all of its people, most food lining the supermarkets is cheap unhealthy meats imported from China, New Zealand, Japan, and other countries. In every case, there are canned foods everywhere, down many aisles, and it is not very expensive. Many Samoans told me that these canned meats have become an integral part of their daily meals, and even their traditional Sunday feasts. One thing is for sure; it would be very difficult to nutritionally feed a family with groceries bought from any of these stores.

In addition to the canned meat are the imported “fresh” cuts. Every market also had a large section devoted to large cuts of meat. I found that these cuts, especially chicken legs, lamb chops, turkey tails, and minced beef are staples of nearly every meal on the island. Unfortunately, these cuts are not ideal. Often the rejects of other countries, these cheap cuts are full of fat, making them far less healthy than a similar cut in the States or even New Zealand for that matter. Though the high fat may turn off a Western consumer, it has become a beloved part of the meat by the locals. Samoa must address the availability of higher quality foods, and educate its people to identify and use these foods in their day-to-day lives.

Samoan food culture must also be considered when creating a policy. One of the strongest places I saw this culture in action was through the church. Samoans are very religious people, and as a result, the church is a central part of their lives. Though many people I met were Catholic, I discovered some interesting differences between how many Samoans view their faith, and I view my own. I do not write this to say my own view of religion is better or more accurate than theirs, rather to acknowledge a difference in how we experience God. Most notably for my research, their faith generally viewed God as a relief of their ailments, and a God who would send divine aid when they are in trouble. As a result, instead of taking action to fix an issue, many Samoans maintain that God will take care of their issue in time. In this way, to some, their weight and diet was simply the way God willed it to be.

Further, one of the most important food traditions in Samoa is tied to faith and religion. On Sunday, the Sabbath, Samoans dedicate their whole day to two things: Jesus and food. Traditionally, after mass, the children of the family would gather food for the Sunday meal. Food is then cooked on a huge outdoor oven called an Umu. Members from the extended family and guests will come to join the feast, each bearing more food as a gift to the evening. I was told, "You always bring food to a Sunday meal, and you always leave with more". Traditionally, the Umu was used to cook local foods like taro, coconut, and fish, but the imported foods I mentioned earlier have infiltrated these affairs. Some people even expressed to me, that foods like fried chicken and canned meats brought the most honor to a family during an Umu. This tradition is celebrated all across the island. Even my hostel family hosted one! Samoan food culture practically ensures that no one goes hungry, and simply taking away food from people can seem like an attack on their culture.

This being said, I think that faith and the church can be an extremely powerful tool in addressing diet and obesity in Samoa. Priests have a voice that is highly heard and regarded in the community, and thus have the power to make recommendations about diet and healthy living. I met with a few priests and community leaders who are planning educational messages around nutrition to be delivered through the church.

Finally, I found much of Samoan food culture is related to a love of family and others. Many Samoans laughed at me when I asked them about times they have eaten alone. “Eaten alone?” they would say, “I have never eaten alone…why would you do that?” It was a powerful moment to see the beauty and love that existed in the very problem I felt called to fix. I believe the family is a very important part of changing diets and promoting healthier lives. To this end, I met with a local CrossFit gym owner in Samoa, named Brandon, who has identified the family as a means to help the members of his gym. He explained that families poke fun at relatives that do not eat large quantities of food or meat, and since families have a strong influence on individuals, dieting was nearly impossible. However, Brandon used these strong family bonds as a strength, not a weakness. With a strong understanding of the Samoan culture, Brandon's program works differently than any government program has to date. During a special consultation with his client, he invited the entire family. At this meeting, he explains and lets his client explain to his or her family about the diet they are about to take on, and why it is important that they do so. He has told me that this allows for the family to no longer be a detriment to the diet, but rather a large support system. Policy needs to take into account this importance of the family to make a strong impact on the lives of Samoans.

While I enjoyed my time conducting research, it was not always easy, and I faced a lot of anxiety and challenges I had not expected. For those who do not know me, I am a person that loves being around other people. My experience, especially in Samoa, put me through an experience of loneliness that I had never gone through before. Despite the unmatched beauty of the island and the feelings of oneness with nature, I felt very much alone. The isolation of the island, especially at night, was hard to even comprehend. Throughout the days, I had no problem approaching the loving people of Samoa to talk to, but my nights - which began at 5 PM when the sun went down - felt like an eternity. Though I would not say I grew to enjoy the isolation, I started to shift my mentality from loneliness to solitude. I turned to prayer and meditation to fill my time. I really think I learned a lot about myself through this experience, and have a better appreciation for those who have not been given the same loving family and friends that I have had around my as long as I have been alive.

I was also surprised by how much my experience in Samoa reminded me of my time in Africa. From the heavy heat and humidity, the types of shops and buildings that lined the streets, and issues accessing clean water and proper sanitation, it was evident that Samoa is still a country in progress. I found myself facing many of the same challenges I faced in Africa, including illness and culture shock.

In the face of these challenges, I allowed myself to be 'guided by the wind'. I forced myself to get out into the city and spent my days wandering where my feet would take me: through local grocery stores, into busy markets, and to engage in conversations with the locals. Simply living on the island, and experiencing it through the soles of my feet allowed me to enjoy the many fruits (pun intended) of life in Samoa, and gave me greater empathy and understanding for the challenges facing Samoa. Through these findings, I grew more optimistic.  I was able to identify some amazing bright spots, in which some people were thriving and in good health despite all of the risk factors and systemic pressures.

In the coming semester, I hope to continue analyzing my research through the international development studies capstone class. Then, I hope to present my research at the Human Development Conference at the University of Notre Dame. Additionally, I hope to reach out to contacts I have made in the field to stay updated on the current happenings in Samoa and New Zealand and to share my insights that I have gained through this project.