Right from the Start: An Apple a Day Keeps Diabetes Away

15 December 2008 By New Israel Fund

A quiet revolution is taking place in the Bedouin community in the Negev and the evidence is found on preschool snack tables: At 10 a.m., the kids take out apples, carrots and water instead of Bamba (a popular chip-like Israeli snack food), candy and sugared drinks.

This dramatic change is the result of a Ben Gurion University-SHATIL project that trains young, educated Bedouin women who want to contribute to the community, to become "instructors for a healthy lifestyle." Upon graduating from a four-month course in proper nutrition, the importance of physical activity, the dangers of smoking and how to cope with stress, the women organize field courses in area preschools and teach the preschool teachers and the children's mothers what they have learned.

"The change we see is unbelievable," says Dr. Dov Tamir, head of the disease prevention unit at the Health Sciences faculty of BGU and the initiator of the project. "Rarely does a project work so well."

Since the change from a traditional, nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary, modern one beginning about 30 years ago, rates of cancer, diabetes and heart disease have sky-rocketed among Israel's Bedouins. "The grandmothers didn't have diabetes, but the kids have it," says Tamir. In order to be most effective in preventing these chronic diseases, he says, one has to start early.

On a sunny Tuesday morning, Atidal Abo Aish, 22, a graduate of our health course, stands in front of 14 Bedouin mothers sitting in a semicircle on tiny chairs in their children's preschool in Rahat, Israel's largest Bedouin city. Most of them are overweight. On the wall behind her is a hand-drawn food pyramid labeled in Arabic. In a self-confident and authoritative tone, Atidal talks about the many vitamins found in fruit peels, the benefits of low-fat milk, of white rather than dark meat chicken and the fact that the Omega-3 in fish helps kids concentrate.

She meets with resistance at first: "But my kids aren't used to eating the peels," one mother complains. "We don't have low-fat milk," says another. "The white meat of the chicken is dry," comments a third.

Atidal suggests the mothers make a sauce for the chicken and tells them to demand low-fat milk at the grocery store. The moms begin to help each other. "If we all start leaving the peel on the fruit, they will get used to it," says one mother. "Don't just do it for him, do it for the older kids and then he'll want it that way, too," says another. The women trade ideas on how to use less oil in their cooking, enhancing the flavor of brown rice with herbs, how to make a big salad in the morning to divide among the children.

Atidal is trying to return Bedouin women – and through them their families -- back to their traditional ways of eating. She must work hard to convince them that homemade whole-wheat pita and lentils, which used to be staples, are far better than white rolls, which they view as "modern".

Atidal shows her students how to read food labels, pointing out the large amounts of sugars and fats in the snack and prepared foods they have gotten used to buying.

Fatma Ashwi, a mother of three, is now ready to make changes: "I'll start with the kids," she says. "I'll start giving them vegetables and fruit instead of sweet snacks."

Atidal says the BGU-SHATIL course was life-changing for her. "I lost 10 kilo (22 lbs.) I run. I dance at home. I eat only whole wheat bread. Only the breast of the chicken. I squeeze orange juice every morning for my four-year-old sister." She has joined a small group of women who are starting a new non-profit organization to carry on this work. Although she is finishing her BA in politics, Atidal sees this health work as a top priority. "I've found my calling," she says with a smile