Social support, nutrition and health among women in rural Bangladesh: Complex tradeoffs in allocare, kin proximity and support network size

Mary K. Shenk, Anne Morse, Siobhán M. Mattison, Rebecca Sear, Nurul Alam, Rubhana Raqib, Anjan Kumar, Farjana Haque, Tami Blumenfield, John Shaver, Richard Sosis, Katherine Wander

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Malnutrition among women of reproductive age is a significant public health concern in low- A nd middle-income countries. Of particular concern are undernutrition from underweight and iron deficiency, along with overweight and obesity, all of which have negative health consequences for mothers and children. Accumulating evidence suggests that risk for poor nutritional outcomes may be mitigated by social support, yet how social support is measured varies tremendously and its effects likely vary by age, kinship and reproductive status. We examine the effects of different measures of social support on weight and iron nutrition among 677 randomly sampled women from rural Bangladesh. While we find that total support network size mitigates risk for underweight, other results point to a potential tradeoff in the effects of kin proximity, with nearby adult children associated with both lower risk for underweight and obesity and higher risk for iron deficiency and anaemia. Social support from kin may then enhance energy balance but not diet quality. Results also suggest that a woman's network of caregivers might reflect their greater need for help, as those who received more help with childcare and housework had worse iron nutrition. Overall, although some findings support the hypothesis that social support can be protective, others emphasize that social relationships often have neutral or negative effects, illustrating the kinds of tradeoffs expected from an evolutionary perspective. The complexities of these effects deserve attention in future work, particularly within public health, where what is defined as 'social support' is often assumed to be positive. This article is part of the theme issue 'Multidisciplinary perspectives on social support and maternal-child health'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20200027
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1827
StatePublished - Jun 21 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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