Question: Why do immigrants experience a decline in health after coming to America?
Answer: Food, Dollars and Access
Last week I reflected broadly upon some of the potential reasons for which one’s health appears to decline after immigrating to the United States. It’s true that as a group, immigrants use significantly less health care services than do native-born citizens. In addition, more than 40 percent of non-U.S. citizens are without insurance. Although immigrants comprise a rapidly growing subgroup, little is known about overweight/obesity among the foreign-born in the United States except that it is an increasing public health concern and associated with higher risk of chronic disease and premature death. In addition, men and women who arrive in the US younger than age 20 are at even higher risk of overweight/obesity than those people who arrive at older ages.
It’s important to note that whatever your race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, gender, or age, obesity has more than tripled during the past three decades. However, the number of years of residence in the United States is associated with higher BMI beginning after 10 years.
This means that the longer an immigrant has been in the U.S., the more likely he or she is to be obese and suffer related health problems including diabetes, heart disease and reduced quality of life.
Here’s why: the greater immigrants’ exposure to U.S., the more likely they are to adopt the same unhealthy behaviors that define the American way. These include a sedentary lifestyle and higher caloric intake. Recent immigrants do eat more fruits and vegetables initially, but after just a few years they eat more fast food and consume more sugar sweetened drinks and snacks than they did previously.
Dollars also play a role. Most Mexican immigrants and many immigrant subgroups do not have more than a high school education which puts them more likely to be in poverty or working class poor. And despite excellent work underway in many cities toward making healthier food more affordable, sweetened and processed food in American is just plain cheaper than fresh produce most of the time.
Even in those cases where immigrants arrive under affluent circumstances and able to afford healthy food, they still tend to adopt traditional American behavior which does not include sufficient exercise and relies on the same high caloric food and beverage products consumed by native-born Americans.
We must make obesity prevention a priority for young US immigrants and their families. This includes ensuring access to affordable and healthy foods and keeping cultural food traditions alive whenever possible. Not only does maintaining a more traditional diet contribute to more balanced and healthful food consumption, it may actually encourage native-born Americans to eat more healthfully. It’s a win-win for everyone who cares about this country and its people – no matter when they’re from.
Previous Post by Sara on this topic:
Sources for this Blog Post: www.hispanichealth.org