By Samuel Tsoi
As the saying goes, you are what you eat. By integrating into American life, do immigrants’ habits and health reflect their traditional cuisine or that of their adopted homeland?
However, the lure and ubiquity of the typical American foods, usually less healthy, is contributing to the obesity epidemic among immigrants. For newcomers and their children, levels of obesity are considerably lower. But after 15 years of residence, they approach those of the overall population. Furthermore, obesity prevalence among American-born children of immigrants is as high as children of native-born parents.
Today, one in three immigrant children who have lived in the US for at least 15 years are overweight or obese, according to the researchers from the University of Washington, University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University.Studies suggest that most immigrants assimilate to the American diet over time.
In the contemporary land of milk and honey, the abundance of cheap, convenient and fatty foods, accompanied by sweetened drinks and condiments have been blamed for why immigrants are gaining weight more than they are gaining citizenship. While many immigrant families might still consume ethnic staples, it is often not easily accessible for some (cost, availability, geography, etc.). There are others who are also incorporating larger portions of meat, sugar and dairy into their dishes.
Social pressures to “eat American” play a role as well. A study published by Psychological Science reveals that children of immigrants choose American foods as a way to prove their American identity.
The researchers also surveyed college students about their embarrassing childhood food memories. Over two-thirds of the Asian-American respondents recalled food-related insecurities around white peers while growing up, such as awkwardness about using chopsticks, foods with “strange” smells, and the custom of eating all parts of the animal.
These factors all lead to the current scenario: about one-third of Asian American kids do not eat their daily recommended portion of fruits and vegetables, according to a report commissioned by the Asian Pacific Fund. Moreover, forty-five percent of Asian children eat fast food on a daily basis, compared to only thirty-three percent of white children. The report also show Asian high school boys have the lowest participation rate in after-school sports, while Asian girls have the second lowest participation rate.
In Boston, health care professionals, educators and community organizations have seen these trends first hand, and developed programs to intervene. At the Wang YMCA in Chinatown, a new program funded by the Asian Health Initiative at Tufts Medical Center seeks to equip teens with the knowledge and skills to make healthy dietary choices.
“We’ve taken out sodas and sweet drinks out of our facilities,” said Richard Chin, who directs the Y’s community outreach efforts. “With EBALANCE [Early Beginning Active Lifestyle & Appropriate Nutritional Choices Education], we help teens with nutritional counseling, develop regular exercise, and encourage parents to cook with less fatty meats and oils at home – over eighty percent of the kids in the program maintained or lost weight.”
Over the course of a week, a majority of meals are consumed by children are while they are in school. “Over the past few decades, school meals have evolved to reflect popular food culture. As fast food and more processed foods became popular in general in the ‘80s, the demand for these less healthy options also increased in our school cafeterias,” said Kim Szeto, Farm to School Coordinator for the Boston Public Schools. She is introducing more from-scratch preparations that include more produce. So far, forty-four school cafeterias across the city are featuring more fresh locally grown fruits and vegetables on menu through “Local Lunch Thursdays.”
With the increase in immigrant students in the public schools, Szeto and her colleagues are also learning how to adapt to their preferences. While many immigrant households serve vegetables on their plates, they might be done differently.
“One day I noticed a group of Asian students at the Edwards Middle School asking each other about the raw [locally-grown] carrots served with low-fat ranch dip – many of whom are used to cooked vegetables, while I also had a Cape Verdean student at the Dearborn Middle School say ‘no thanks’ to a sample of butternut squash roasted with cinammon and sugar because he ‘eats green vegetables at home’,” Szeto said. With gradual introduction in the menus, education on importance of making healthy food choices, and continual adjustments to recipes to meet students’ preferences, it is maximizing the opportunity for students to enjoy the healthy items on the menu, instead of the vegetables ending up in the trash.
In home kitchens, families are learning how to blend Western and Asian styles of cooking, while keeping it affordable, delicious and healthy. The Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC) runs the Rock Your Body program which works with children diagnosed as overweight or obese. “Many kids want their parents to cook Western-style foods, and we’re teaching these Chinese parents about food labeling, counting calories and healthy recipes,” said Wenjun Zhai, BCNC’s Family Services Specialist. The program conducts workshops for the children, ages 8-12, their siblings and parents.
BCNC takes referrals from pediatricians at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts. “Close to fifty percent of my patients are overweight or obese,” said Sue Ann Ponte, nurse practitioner and director of the Asian Pediatric and Adolescent Clinical Services Program. “Overweight causes many health problems, Rock Your Body teaches balanced eating and positive attitudes toward exercising and promotes less screen time [on electronic devices].”
Certainly, the American diet is not the sole culprit. As economic conditions improve, many middle-class families in China are also increasing their meat and dessert consumption, for example. Children in China growing up under the one-child policy and a rapidly Westernizing fast-food landscape are patronizing establishments such as KFC and McDonald’s, dining experiences which are seen as status symbols in urban China.
Similarly, the industrialization of food that prioritizes meats, dairy and cheap sweeteners affects all cuisines, ethnically-traditional or mainstream American. In fact, Chinese American cuisine has become such mainstays that when adding up all Chinese restaurants in the US, they outnumber all the major fast-food chains combined – many of which are serving dishes with sweet and salty sauces, fatty meats and heavy portions of carbs.
“We teach parents to understand the nutrition concept and how to cook healthier dishes, both Chinese and American, and encourage them to order healthier options and portions when eating out,” said Yoyo Yau, BCNC’s Director of Family Services. “Parents have a strong influence over the young kids’ choices, and more people are realizing nutrition is very important to their health,” Yau added, describing the tendency for many immigrant parents who are concerned that their young children do not consume enough food, thus applying pressure during meal time.
To ease that tension, BCNC also brings together the families for the East Meets West Healthy Cooking classes, to harvest vegetables grown in the roof garden to their plates. “When they experience the whole process of preparing food together, it’s a fun experience for the family. There is less stress for parents who feel they have to feed their kids,” Yau said. “Instead, children feel they have more control – they appreciate the holistic aspects of nutrition and the effects on their bodies and to build nurturing family relationships.”
From the kitchens at the school cafeterias and BCNC to many across the city and nation, the rise of more localized, diversified and multicultural palettes is redefining what constitutes good food. There’s also growing awareness on the consequences of overconsumption of animal protein and fat (and the benefits of a produce-rich diet) with the popularity of books such as The China Study and films like Forks over Knives.
Across the US, a groundswell of ethnic neighborhoods, restaurants and food markets are transforming the notion of “All-American” cuisine. After all, pizza and bagels were once “immigrant foods,” and sushi and burritos are now commonplace in many corners of the country. The challenge of reigning in harmful calories and cholesterol will be an effort for all populations to remake the American diet and lifestyle – with our collective wellbeing and identity on the line.
This post is also available in: Chinese