Madagascar is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, but the diets of its people are not as diverse as they should be, according to a Virginia Tech undergraduate researcher who helped conduct a study there this summer.

Keely O’Keefe of Glen Allen, Virginia, a rising junior majoring in human nutrition, foods, and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, surveyed 138 mothers in 10 Malagasy villages with support from a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the Fralin Life Science Institute.

O’Keefe will present her results Thursday, Aug. 30, at the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Working with Virginia Tech faculty member Alisha Farris, O’Keefe interviewed mothers in Madagascar about diet diversity, which foods they view as healthy or unhealthy, food security, and access to markets, crops, and livestock. Then she weighed and measured each mother and one of her children. 

Farris and O’Keefe found that the average diet diversity score was about 6.5 out of 12, with a good diet diversity score being 9 or higher. They also found that many women and children had limited diets — a large portion of rice with a small green leafy vegetable on the side for every meal — because of the high cost of items such as poultry or fish and their distance from a market.

The researchers wanted to focus on mothers and children because they are among the most vulnerable populations in developing countries.

"More than 95 percent of the Malagasy population lives under the global poverty line, which is $2 per day, and this significantly impacts the amount and variety of food they consume," said O’Keefe. "The lack of money is really the biggest issue because they are forced to sell their fruits and vegetables, which they need to be consuming to avoid vitamin and nutrient deficiencies, in order to buy medicine when their children get sick or just to buy more rice because it’s cheaper and keeps them full. Because of these deficiencies, they become more susceptible to sickness. It’s a vicious cycle."

However, Farris, a child nutrition extension specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, pointed out that the small amount of green leafy vegetables that interviewees consumed are high in vitamin A and iron, two important micronutrients for good health.

"Because of the cheaper cost and lack of feeling full after eating them, stigma surrounds the green leaves and they are seen as undesirable," said Farris. "This offers a great opportunity for education — helping people understand the enormous value of consuming these foods. Through Keely’s assistance in the field and the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship opportunity, we were able to collect baseline community data that will help us develop education and nutrition interventions for these women and children."

Upon graduation, O’Keefe plans to continue to work internationally by joining the Peace Corps.



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