America's melting pot in a processed cheese food era

June 3, 2009 

Consider nachos. Originally conceived in a Mexican border town with fresh tortillas and cheddar cheese, in the United States they mutated into deep fried chips dripping with something known as "processed cheese food." In this vastly more unhealthy form they are now actually a lunch staple in schools across the state.

Since this is what we choose to feed our children, we should not be too surprised to learn that recent immigrants to the United States are healthier than we are. No matter where you stand on immigration, this phenomenon -- known as the "Latino health paradox " -- tells us a lot about ourselves.

This is especially important because N.C. Prevention Partners just gave the state a "D" in health. We have much to learn from immigrants.

People migrating from Latin America are generally much poorer than the average American, and have lived harder lives. Therefore, we might think that they must have health problems related to diet. It would also be logical to assume that these immigrants would be more likely to need medical attention once they arrived in the United States.

Yet for over a decade, study after study has shown that immigrants born in Latin America are actually healthier than everyone else. The most prominent indicator of this fact is the health of babies born in the United States.

This is true here in North Carolina as well, where most of the Latino population is recently arrived. For example, according to birth data from the Mecklenburg County Health Department, Latinas have both the fewest low weight babies of any group as well as the fewest incidences of premature births.

For all our wealth, those of us born in the USA are, on average, just not as healthy as our migrant newcomers.

One prominent explanation is that there is a "survival of the fittest" factor, whereby only the healthiest make the difficult trip across borders (either legally or illegally). This is known as migration selectivity.

Another idea is that immigrants choose to return if they become sick. Thus, only the very healthiest women migrate and stay, which then skews the results.

The problem with such explanations, however, is that they cannot account for one confounding factor. Longitudinal studies (which examine a group over time) show that once people have lived in the United States for several years, they begin to lose all those positive characteristics. So do their children.

If they were the healthiest before, then what has happened since?

A key to the answer is lifestyle. Americans drink, smoke and take more drugs than their southern neighbors.

Additionally, a traditional diet from Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean (the source countries of most Latin American immigrants) is far healthier than ours. It is low fat, with a good balance between proteins and carbohydrates, and few empty calories.

Sadly, adjustment to American culture entails fast, processed and fatty food. You need not go farther than Hardee's -- which was first opened in North Carolina -- where you can buy a Thickburger consisting of 2/3 pound of meat, three slices of cheese, four strips of bacon and mayonnaise. It adds up to 1,300 calories and 96 grams of fat. The recommended amounts for an adult are 2,000 calories and 65 grams of fat for an entire day.

We tend not to work off those calories. In North Carolina, we rarely walk to work, and unfortunately all too often we might be risking our lives if we did, particularly given the lack of sidewalks. In most U.S. cities, we are collectively committed to driving everywhere.

So the strange reality is that contrary to what we often hear in the media, Latino immigrants do, indeed, assimilate to the local culture and take on American characteristics. In North Carolina, this means not only a commitment to freedom and democracy, but also to Krispy Kreme, Bojangle's, Cheerwine, Camels and Winstons.

It's nice to know that as we all sit pleasantly bloated by our meals, we're contributing to national unity -- in this case, a shared commitment to poor health.

What we need instead is a dose of reverse assimilation, a collective dedication to greater awareness of the positive aspects of immigrant food. A good start would be eliminating nachos from school menus and asking our newly arrived immigrants what they would suggest instead.

Gregory Weeks is associate professor of political science at UNC-Charlotte and a 2009 GlaxoSmithKline Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University.

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