cultural influence

Cultural influences on physical activity and diet

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In Blackburn with Darwen approximately 30% of the population are of South Asian (predominantly Indian and Pakistani) origin. Research shows black and Asian children are three times more likely to have an “obesogenic lifestyle” (lower physical activity, higher screen time, unhealthy diet) than white children3. In a study conducted at Liverpool John Moores University, we explored the cultural factors that influence children’s weight-related behaviours4,5,6. Below are some of the key findings, followed by some recommendations for practice:


  • Parents from some ethnic backgrounds (e.g. Somali, Bangladeshi, Yemeni) viewed a larger body size as desirable, and were less concerned by the potential consequences of childhood obesity. This is possibly due to the association of overweight with good health and wealth in certain cultures, and can lead some parents to want to “feed up” their children. 
  • Parents from certain ethnic backgrounds (e.g. Bangladeshi, Yemeni) placed a higher value on academic and cultural education than physical activity, which means time spent at faith schools, language classes and doing homework can leave little time for physical activity.   
  • Whilst Muslim girls are encouraged to be physically active, parents felt the dominant sports in the Western culture (e.g. football) did not fit with Islamic values for girls and women. The importance of female-only physical activity facilities was highlighted.     
  • Some parents viewed cultural food practices as a barrier to healthy eating (e.g. eating from sharing platters, eating a lot of starchy and high-fat foods, eating a “late supper”, cooking with ghee).


  • Help parents understand the health consequences of unhealthy weight.
  • Help parents understand how health is viewed from a religious point of view, Islam urges its adherents to take care of their physical and mental health and wellbeing.
  • Recognise different cultural ideals and focus on health behaviours (i.e. physical activity and diet) rather than weight.
  • In cases where education takes priority over physical activity, help parents understand how being active can help a child’s concentration and cognitive development. 
  • Find out about local services that offer female-only physical activity sessions (that allow flexible dress codes), and work with Muslim families to help them identify culturally-valued activities for their young girls.
  • Help families identify their cultural barriers to healthy eating and work with them to come up with suitable solutions (e.g. by identifying healthy substitutes for cooking ingredients).
  • Help parents to identify their religious values in the context of looking after their physical and mental health and wellbeing.
  • Be aware of religious festivals (e.g. Ramadan) and the impact this may have on families’ dietary and physical activity behaviours.    

It is also important to consider that black and Asian children living in the UK are more likely to experience child poverty7. As we know from the module on unhealthy weight at pre-school age, children from low socio-economic backgrounds are at a greater risk of being both over and underweight. The higher prevalence of unhealthy weight in certain ethnic groups may therefore be linked to the socio-economic situation they are living in rather than their ethnicity per se3.    


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2. Wahi, G., & Anand, S. S. (2013). Race/ethnicity, obesity, and related cardio-metabolic risk factors: a life-course perspective. Current cardiovascular risk reports7(5), 326.

3. Falconer, C. L., Park, M. H., Croker, H., Kessel, A. S., Saxena, S., Viner, R. M., & Kinra, S. (2014). Can the relationship between ethnicity and obesity-related behaviours among school-aged children be explained by deprivation? A cross-sectional study. BMJ open, 4(1), e003949.

4. Trigwell, J., Watson, P., Murphy, R., Cable, T., Stratton, G. (2011). Addressing childhood obesity in black and racial minority (BRM) populations in Liverpool:Project Report. MerseyBEAT, Liverpool John Moores University.

5. Trigwell, J., Watson, P. M., Murphy, R. C., Stratton, G., & Cable, N. T. (2014). Ethnic differences in parental attitudes and beliefs about being overweight in childhood. Health Education Journal, 73(2), 179-191.

6. Trigwell, J., et al. (2015). "Parental views of children’s physical activity: a qualitative study with parents from multi-ethnic backgrounds living in England." BMC public health 15(1): 1005.

7. Ethnicity and child poverty, May 2009 DWP research report No.576