Mapping Changes in Eating Patterns of Asylum Seekers

This small, qualitative study was undertaken as part of a European MA in Migration, Mental Health and Social Care at the University of Kent.  At the time I was working for Salford PCT as Health Visitor for Refugees and Asylum Seekers.

Rationale for study

Asylum seekers are dispersed to Salford under the Nationality and Immigration Act, 1999.  They are accommodated in the most deprived parts of the city, where services are already over-stretched, and as well as cultural bereavement and poverty, they are often isolated and may be subject to racist abuse.

The reason for my choosing to look at eating patterns was my observation that asylum seekers, particularly young men, often lose weight after their arrival in Salford.  I noticed that their eating patterns changed dramatically from the pattern in the home country, and felt that these changes could reflect, and act as a metaphor for, the massive changes in the lives of people who have been forced to flee from their countries.  Food is one of the few areas in their lives in which asylum seekers can exercise some choice.


I chose participants to reflect as far as possible the nationality, gender and language mix of asylum seekers dispersed to Salford.  They consisted of five Kurdish men from Iraq and Iran, two English speaking Africans, a man and a woman, from Zimbabwe and Uganda, and four French speaking Africans, three men and a woman, from Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo Brazzaville and Burundi.


I conducted two focus groups and three individual interviews, transcribed and interrogated the data.  Interpreters were used unless the participant’s first language was English, and all written materials were translated if required.


  • Massive changes in eating patterns were universal, with most participants eating only one meal a day in the early stages of their exile in Salford.  The culture in most refugee producing countries is sociocentric, in contrast to the egocentric culture of the West.  Food is cooked by the women of the family and is eaten, often from a communal dish, by the whole extended family together, an exercise in sharing and an opportunity to discuss  problems.  In the UK, asylum seekers are obliged by circumstance to eat alone, or with strangers, a daily reminder of all that they have lost in terms of family, community, warmth and support.
  • Weight loss was common, often as much as 14 kgs.
  • There are few ethnic food outlets in Salford, and this necessitated participants travelling considerable distances to find food that was familiar to them.  This food was less fresh than it would have been in the home country, and more expensive than food which is more usually eaten in the UK.
  • Several participants expressed dismay at the poor quality of food available in Salford, in particular the difficulty in finding fresh fruit and vegetables.  They also expressed concern about genetic modification and the amount of chemicals and hormones in UK food.
  • Participants had difficulty in recognising food eg. cuts of meat, unfamiliar vegetables, unreadable tins and packets.  Tinned and frozen food, and pre-prepared food, was an unfamiliar concept to people who were used to preparing food from fresh ingredients.
  • Participants understood the need to eat fresh fruit and vegetables, and were prepared to travel to buy these.
  • A lack of English language skills made shopping difficult.
  • The cooking equipment provided by NASS (National Asylum Support Service) was often of poor quality and inadequate.
  • Several participants said that they did not know how to cook English vegetables.
  • Most men had not cooked for themselves in their home country, and had to learn quickly.  The fact that they did so in spite of the so many challenges and difficulties reflects the resilience of refugees.
  • Several participants talked of preparing and eating food as a relief of boredom.
  • Asylum seekers are disempowered by the experience of exile.  They have no choice in where they can live, and are unable to work or embark on a course of study.  Food is one of the few areas in their lives where they can exercise choice, albeit limited by the factors outlined above.  Talking about food gave them a rare chance to be the ‘expert’, an important factor in regaining a sense of self and raising self-esteen.
  • Distress is almost universal amongst asylum seekers.  The amount and type of food eaten by the participants reflected their mood.  Most participants said that they ate less when unhappy than when they felt happy.  Several participants said that they ate more when with other people; this is often not an option for newly arrived asylum seekers, who can be very isolated.  Prior to dispersal under the 1999 Act there were no refugee communities in Salford, although informal networks are now developing.
  • All participants instinctively understood non-nutritional aspects of food, and talked of food as a gift and as a way of sharing.
  • As time went on and people became more settled and less acutely distressed, the eating patterns of the home country reasserted themselves, adapted to local conditions – a metaphor for the way in which lives are being re-built to a different pattern, and probably an indicator of improved mental health.

Maslow’s hierarchy of need can be applied to food.  Newly arrived asylum seekers ate simply to survive, but as time went on and people became more settled they moved on to eating as belonging, and then to eating as an expression of self-esteem.

All participants were pleased to take part in this study, which they saw as a chance for meaningful activity and an opportunity to be taken seriously.


These findings have implications for practice, and increase understanding of the lives of asylum seekers in dispersal

Cath Maffia MA, RN, RM, HV