Immigrants to the United States and their U.S.-born children gain more than a new life and new citizenship. They gain weight. The wide availability of cheap, convenient, fatty American foods and large meal portions have been blamed for immigrants packing on pounds, approaching U.S. levels of obesity within 15 years of their move.
Psychologists show that it's not simply the abundance of high-calorie American junk food that causes weight gain. Instead, members of U.S. immigrant groups choose typical American dishes as a way to show that they belong and to prove their American-ness.
"People who feel like they need to prove they belong in a culture will change their habits in an attempt to fit in," said Sapna Cheryan, corresponding author and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington. "If immigrants and their children choose unhealthy American foods over healthier traditional foods across their lives, this process of fitting in could lead to poorer health," she said.
The results are published in the June issue of Psychological Science.
Public health studies show that diets of immigrants, including those from Asia, Africa and Central and South America, worsen the longer they stay in the United States.
Remembering her own self-consciousness about the healthy school lunches her mother packed for her during her childhood in Berkeley, Calif., co-author Maya Guendelman suspected that immigrants might use food as a way to appear more American. "I remember wanting lunches that would make me feel more mainstream," said Guendelman, whose parents immigrated from Chile.
Guendelman is a psychology graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. Benot Monin, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University, is also a co-author.
The researchers surveyed Asian-American and white college students to learn about embarrassing childhood food memories. Sixty-eigh
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University of Washington