The Effects of Dietary Changes on Health in Papua New Guinea.

The article below was submitted by guest blogger Claire Wainright.

The article discusses dietary changes occuring in PNG and its impact on health in PNG.


In the mountains and valleys of Papua New Guinea, traditional village life revolves around the family garden and its harvest of the three major staples: taro, yams and sago. Add to these the produce of the local landscape – the watermelons, peanuts, mangoes, coconut and cucumber, supplemented by proteins from poultry, fish or pork – and the traditional diet can be seen as much more healthy than the modern western diet that is rapidly replacing it. The traditional diet is high in nutrients and fibre, and low in fats. Oils are used sparingly in cooking, and milk and other dairy products are uncommon. The milk and dried fruit of the coconut are both used to flavour meals. These are all characteristics of the healthy diet advocated by critics of the highly processed packaged foods that are rich in fat, sugar and salt, which Pacific Islanders increasingly rely upon; together with the increased use of alcohol, these changes in diet are having an adverse affect on the health of the nation, with a rising incidence of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

 An unbalanced diet

In Papua New Guinea, micronutrient imbalances in the diet are now common. Iodine deficiency is a particular problem so that goitre is endemic, although significant progress has been made recently to combat this problem through salt iodisation. Vitamin A deficiency is also a significant public health risk; this can result in a range of problems including infections of the eyes and respiratory system, and irregular development of bones and teeth. Dr Kemo Waqanivalu, World Health Organisation (WHO) South Pacific Officer for nutritional and physical activity, cites the lack of promotion of traditional foods as contributing to the problem as they are ‘unable to compete with the glamour and flashiness of imported foods.’ Historically, food was imported from Australia and New Zealand, but is now imported from countries much further afield such a China, Malaysia and the Philippines. Consequently, nutrition and ingredients labelling is inconsistent and not always in English, which is the common language in most Pacific island nations. Improvement of labelling needs to be encouraged for the monitoring of food safety and quality.

According to a 2010 WHO report, in at least 10 Pacific Island nations, between 50-90% of the population is overweight. This is a major factor in the rise of type 2 diabetes in adults, which is amongst the highest in the world. In Papua New Guinea it is estimated that in a population of over 7 million, 59,000 people have the condition, although only about 15% of these are aware of it. This is a worldwide problem where traditional diets are being replaced by fast foods and processed packaged foods high in carbohydrate, fat and sugar. This sort of diet stimulates the pancreas to produce more insulin, which is vital formetabolising carbohydrate and fat and for removing excess glucose from the blood. It also makes you feel hungry. Over-eating and obesity are the results.


Throughout the world, westernisation of cultures has brought a rise in alcohol consumption, which has contributed to ill health. In Papua New Guinea, control of sales has been nonexistent and the selling of homemade, extremely potent and often poisonous brews is rife. There has been an increase in cirrhosis of the liver and cancer of the upper respiratory and upper digestive tracts associated with alcoholism. Alcohol abuse also brings an increase in social problems such as public drunkenness, street crime and road traffic accidents, as well as domestic violence – which can be directly physical, psychological, sexual or threatened abuse. This is often invisible. As Licensed Prescriptions explain: ‘Victims may often feel afraid to speak up, or feel that they have to cover up or make excuses for the harm that has been inflicted upon them. They may also make excuses for their abusive partners too, by claiming that what has happened to them was their fault, or was done to them because their partner loves them.’ The Hon Sam Abal MP, then acting Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, in a 2011 speech, said: ‘A domestic violence study carried out by the Constitutional Law Reform Commission found that 71% of the women interviewed considered alcohol as a major cause of marital problems. Of those who had been beaten by their spouses, 26% related the incident to alcohol.’

To a large extent, the increase of alcohol consumption in Papua New Guinea arose out of a response to the nation’s struggle against colonialism, and the village drinking club became an important symbol of freedom and autonomy, as well as of equality between town and country – although equality of the sexes was overlooked, with drinking being very much a male preserve. This problem was addressed by the Papua New Guinea government in May 2012, when it promised to introduce a range of new laws to control rising crime rates, which will include alcohol licensing; this will become a national rather than provincial function, and alcohol trading hours will be limited.


At the 2010 Pacific Food Summit, delegates agreed on a framework for ‘allowing each country to work towards food security according to national priorities.’ Food security was defined as existing ‘when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle.’ This is jeopardised globally by population pressure, increases in food and fuel prices, unstable economic conditions and changing climate. Pacific Island nations are particularly affected, and the increasing reliance on imported and processed foods contributes to the loss of cultural knowledge and local production of food, which creates an uncertainty of supply.

For Jennifer Baing-Waiko, a return to indigenous food is very much a way of life. In 2007, with her husband Bao Waiko, she co-founded Savé PNG, an organisation dedicated to inspiring Papua New Guineans to embrace their indigenous culture, and to celebrate and protect their traditional diet. Savé PNG addresses the linked problem of public health, protection of eco-systems and cultural identity. As diet and the sources of food have changed, elaborate food management systems that were sustained for generations, which regulated the harvesting of fish, plants and animals, have been degraded. For Savé PNG, the relationship between environment, community health and indigenous diet are clear.

In a changing world, maintaining the benefits of traditional agriculture and food supplies is a daunting task. The quality and quantity of forest and gardening land has been depleted, but in a country with some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, Papua New Guinea is the perfect place to show the value of traditional economies in the face of a homogenous, globalised economy that is often detrimental to local cultures. Savé PNG is part of a new generation of organisations working to help communities in Melanesia to protect their traditional culture.

By raising interest in these traditions, Savé PNG is helping the unique bio-cultural systems of Papua New Guinea to survive and continue to provide good, healthy food for local communities. While there are various initiatives to preserve native food species, such as setting up community seed banks, these will succeed only if the traditions and celebrations surrounding their cultivation and use are valued. The stakes are high. For Jennifer Baing-Waiko, they go far beyond the sentiment of saving traditions merely for posterity’s sake. She said: ‘Indigenous food is very much a way of life. It’s as much about who we are, where we’ve come from, and how we are going to survive global climate challenges in the future.’


About rodney itaki

Medical doctor and public health specialist from Papua New Guinea.
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