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Immigrants Eat American Junk Food to Fit In: Study

FRIDAY, May 6 (HealthDay News) -- After moving to the United States, immigrant groups trying to fit in tend to choose high-calorie, fatty foods in an attempt to appear more American, a new study finds.

That's one reason why immigrants approach U.S. levels of obesity within 15 years of moving to America, according to research in the June issue of Psychological Science.

Researchers surveyed Asian-American and white college students about embarrassing childhood food memories. Although 68 percent of the Asian-American respondents recalled food-related insecurities, such as awkwardness about using chopsticks, only 27 percent of white respondents recalled any embarrassing food practices.

The researchers also did an experiment that measured whether or not the threat of appearing un-American influenced respondents' food choices.

After being questioned about their ability to speak English, 75 percent of Asian-Americans identified a typical American food as their favorite. Only 25 percent of Asian-Americans who had not been asked if they spoke English did the same.

White participants' lists of favorite foods did not differ whether the experimenter asked if they spoke English.

When their American identity was called into question during a follow-up study, Asian-American participants also tended to choose typical American dishes, such as hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches, over more Asian fare.

In that experiment, 55 Asian-Americans were asked to choose a meal from a local Asian or American restaurant. Some participants were told that only Americans could participate in the study.

Those who chose the more typical American fare ended up consuming an extra 182 calories, including 12 grams of fat and seven grams of saturated fat.

"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, an author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington, in a journal news release. "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," Cheryan added.

Social pressures, the study concluded, are at the heart of the problem. "In American society today, being American is associated with being white. Americans who don't fit this image even if they were born here and speak English feel that pressure to prove that they're American," said Cheryan.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on obesity in America.

-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas

SOURCE: Association for Psychological Science, news release, May 3, 2011

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