Question: Why do immigrants experience a decline in health after coming to America?
Research indicates that immigrants to the United States quickly become accustomed to eating a regular American diet, which includes a large quantity of processed food that is cheaply prepared and rapidly consumed.
Why would someone from another country that has lived his or her entire life relying on healthier, more whole and less processed food adapt rapidly convert to a diet so radically different and less healthy? Let’s look at the traditional diet of a lower to middle class Mexican family. Three meals a day typically include corn tortillas made from scratch, protein such as eggs, beans and cheese, and plenty of fresh fruit from a local source. Meat is consumed, but not necessarily daily. An incredible variety of chile, cilantro, oregano, and cinnamon are used in most Mexican kitchens. Meals are spicy and aromatic. That said, obesity and diet-related chronic diseases such as diabetes are on the uptick both in Mexico and in the United States. When immigrants arrive to the United States, most are looking for work and have financial limitations when it comes to securing lodging and buying food. In the case of many Mexican andMexican-American families (including my own a generation ago), they begin to consume less tortilla, beans, soups, and add greater use of meat, sweetened beverages and cereals, snacks and ready-to-eat meals in fast food style. Working two or more jobs allows little time to shop and prepare nutritious, affordable meals three times per day. Children add further challenge to the scene as immigrant parents strive to make a comfortable living in their new country of residence.
On a positive note, many Mexican immigrants consume more milk and vegetables than they did before. But trends are alarming as this population experiences increasing rates of chronic disease due to, and prevented by, diet and lifestyle choices.
It’s difficult to blame diet entirely for the skyrocketing statistics. Foreign-born residents in the United States are, unfortunately, also less likely to have health insurance, and therefore may not be receiving regular and recommended medical attention.
But as I drove home from work the other day, and passed by the usual gluttony of fast food restaurants located in close proximity to low-income housing and mixed-ethnicity neighborhoods, I couldn’t help but sigh. I’ve lived overseas. I’ve heard people speak of finding better opportunity in the United States. And I am ashamed that as part of our welcome package, we present fast food restaurants and corner stores serving up booze and cigarettes as priority service. Can’t we do better?
We must do better. We are a nation of immigrants, and we will continue to be. Right now our welcome package includes limited choices for healthy food, few options for safe and affordable housing and restricted options for comprehensive health care. This despite the fact that most immigrants to the U.S. work better than eight or ten hours per day. My suggestion? Let’s put together a welcome package that includes safe and living-wage jobs, health care, and healthy food. And let’s not do so in isolation, but let’s reach out to men and women who have traveled great distances to contribute to our community and make a home in our neighborhoods. Let’s ask them how we can improve what is available and affordable to them, and in turn, we will improve our own chances at creating a healthy, robust and sustainable lifestyle for ourselves and our families.
Resources for this article: Furturity.org