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Many new immigrants to U.S. change
diet -- and not for the better
Lynn, Humanities Editor
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
Ilana Redstone Akresh has analyzed the dietary assimiliation
and immigrant health. Nearly 40 percent of her sample
reported at least one significant change: increased
consumption of junk food and meat.
— Coming to the land of milk and honey can be hazardous to new
immigrants’ diet and health.
So says Ilana Redstone Akresh, a visiting professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of
a new analysis of dietary assimilation and immigrant health. In her
study, Akresh considered the changes in immigrants’ diets after
coming to the United States and the subsequent relationship between
those changes and Body Mass Index (BMI) and health status.
She found that 39 percent of her sample of 6,637 adults reported at
least one significant change in their diet. The most commonly reported
dietary changes were an increased consumption of junk food and meat,
according to her findings in the not-yet published study.
More than 10 percent of the sample reported eating more junk food in
the United States, while more than 8 percent said they ate more meat
in America than they ate in their home countries. Nearly 15 percent
reported eating fewer vegetables, fruit, fish or rice and beans. As
a consequence of their acquired tastes, many new immigrants are not
only bulking up, but also becoming less healthy, Akresh said.
Dietary change as an area of assimilation had not been studied, but
Akresh believes that “in perhaps no realm more so than what one
eats is assimilation more visible, tangible and directly experienced.”
The changes that immigrants make may have short- and long-term health
consequences, the professor said. “Understanding these changes
and examining their determinants is an important precursor to a fuller
understanding of immigrant health.”
In her research, Akresh focuses on several aspects of immigrant acculturation
and assimilation to the United States, giving a portrait of immigrant
A second new study that will be published later this year explores the
occupational mobility among legal immigrants to the United States. A
third focuses on immigrant intentions and mobility.
For the latter two analyses, Akresh used data from the New Immigrant
Survey Pilot study, which followed immigrants who received their green
cards in 1996 for one year. The RAND Corp. conducted the pilot study.
For her examination of dietary change, Akresh used the full New Immigrant
Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University
of Chicago. The first cohort of the survey was interviewed in 2003.
Other findings from her dietary analysis:
• Consuming more junk food is associated with acculturation. Those
immigrants who reported consuming more junk food in the United States
also have more experience in the country, a higher likelihood of having
a spouse from the United States, and a lower likelihood of having a
spouse from the same country. They are also more likely to speak English
as one of multiple languages at home, to speak English exclusively at
work and with friends, and to have a significantly higher average BMI
than those who do not.
• Immigrants who eat more meat in the United States have been
here longer, have more children and live in younger households. They
also have fewer years of education, a lower proportion of them are able
to speak English well and they have lower rates of English language
use with friends and at work than those who do not consume more meat.
Individuals reporting increased meat consumption also have higher household
incomes and higher average BMI.
“This pattern depicts immigrants who are perhaps less integrated,
yet are doing well enough financially to afford meat. They may not have
the nutrition information necessary to accurately assess the value of
increased meat consumption or they may choose to ignore this information,”
• Those who are married are more likely to maintain a diet similar
to that which they had prior to immigration, while having a spouse born
in the United States is associated with a greater change in diet.
• The fewer changes the immigrant incorporates into his diet,
the lower his BMI.
The findings have policy implications, “particularly related to
informing immigrants about the pros and cons of selecting the items
in the grocery store that they might not be familiar with,” Akresh
“Nutrition education targeting immigrants may decrease this trend
and increase the proportion of this population that chooses the trajectory
of dietary change associated with a positive health outcome. Using the
New Immigrant Survey to identify immigrants’ eating patterns by
region of origin and to identify the prevalence of these behavioral
changes will increase our understanding of what many may consider a
negative outcome of the assimilation process.”
In a second analysis, to be published later this year in International
Migration Review, Akresh focused on occupational mobility, comparing
immigrants’ occupation in the United States with that of their
last job abroad.
In that study she found that 50 percent of the immigrants experienced
Among the highest skilled immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean,
more than three-fourths end up in lower-skilled jobs than what they
“Human capital acquired in Latin America and the Caribbean is
valued less than that from Europe, Australia and Canada in the U.S.
labor market,” she said, “while immigrants with some U.S.
education can increase the returns to that acquired previously abroad.”
In a third study, co-written with Princeton University sociologist Douglas
S. Massey, to be published in Social Science Quarterly in December,
the authors looked at immigrants’ intentions and mobility in a
global economy, connecting immigrants’ objective circumstances
to satisfaction with life in the United States, intentions with regard
to naturalization and settlement, and “concrete behaviors”
such as sending money back home and leaving the country.
They found that those people expressing a high degree of U.S. satisfaction
are significantly more likely to intend to naturalize and also are more
likely to want to stay in the United States forever.
However, those with high earnings and U.S. property are less likely
to plan on naturalizing; those with high levels of education are least
likely to be satisfied with the United States.
“The picture that emerges from this analysis is of a fluid and
dynamic global market for human capital in which the bearers of skills,
education and abilities seek to maximize earnings in the short term
while retaining little commitment to any particular society or national
labor market over the longer term.”