Coming to the land of milk and honey can be hazardous to new immigrants' diet and health.
So says Ilana Redstone Akresh (pronounced AY-kresh), a visiting professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of a new analysis of dietary assimilation and immigrant health. In her study, Akresh considered the changes in immigrants' diets after coming to the United States and the subsequent relationship between those changes and Body Mass Index (BMI) and health status.
She found that 39 percent of her sample of 6,637 adults reported at least one significant change in their diet. The most commonly reported dietary changes were an increased consumption of junk food and meat, according to her findings in the not-yet published study.
More than 10 percent of the sample reported eating more junk food in the United States, while more than 8 percent said they ate more meat in America than they ate in their home countries. Nearly 15 percent reported eating fewer vegetables, fruit, fish or rice and beans. As a consequence of their acquired tastes, many new immigrants are not only bulking up, but also becoming less healthy, Akresh said.
Dietary change as an area of assimilation had not been studied, but Akresh believes that "in perhaps no realm more so than what one eats is assimilation more visible, tangible and directly experienced."
The changes that immigrants make may have short- and long-term health consequences, the professor said. "Understanding these changes and examining their determinants is an important precursor to a fuller understanding of immigrant health."
In her research, Akresh focuses on several aspects of immigrant acculturation and assimilation to the United States, giving a portrait of immigrant behaviors.
A second new study that will be published later this year explores the occupational mobility among legal immigrants to the United States. A third focuses on immigrant intentions and mobility.
For the latter two analyses, Akresh used data from the New Immigrant Survey Pilot study, which followed immigrants who received their green cards in 1996 for one year. The RAND Corp. conducted the pilot study. For her examination of dietary change, Akresh used the full New Immigrant Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The first cohort of the survey was interviewed in 2003. Other findings from her dietary analysis:
- Consuming more junk food is associated with acculturation. Those immigrants who reported consuming more junk food in the United States also have more experience in the country, a higher likelihood of having a spouse from the United States, and a lower likelihood of having a spouse from the same country. They are also more likely to speak English as one of multiple languages at home, to speak English exclusively at work and with friends, and to have a significantly higher average BMI than those who do not.
- Immigrants who eat more meat in the United States have been here longer, have more children and live in younger households. They also have fewer years of education, a lower proportion of them are able to speak English well and they have lower rates of English language use with friends and at work than those who do not consume more meat. Individuals reporting increased meat consumption also have higher household incomes and higher average BMI.
"This pattern depicts immigrants who are perhaps less integrated, yet are doing well enough financially to afford meat. They may not have the nutrition information necessary to accurately assess the value of increased meat consumption or they may choose to ignore this information," Akresh wrote.
- Those who are married are more likely to maintain a diet similar to that which they had prior to immigration, while having a spouse born in the United States is associated with a greater change in diet.
- The fewer changes the immigrant incorporates into his diet, the lower his BMI.
The findings have policy implications, "particularly related to informing immigrants about the pros and cons of selecting the items in the grocery store that they might not be familiar with," Akresh said.
"Nutrition education targeting immigrants may decrease this trend and increase the proportion of this population that chooses the trajectory of dietary change associated with a positive health outcome. Using the New Immigrant Survey to identify immigrants' eating patterns by region of origin and to identify the prevalence of these behavioral changes will increase our understanding of what many may consider a negative outcome of the assimilation process."
In a second analysis, to be published later this year in International Migration Review, Akresh focused on occupational mobility, comparing immigrants' occupation in the United States with that of their last job abroad.
In that study she found that 50 percent of the immigrants experienced "occupational downgrading."
Among the highest skilled immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, more than three-fourths end up in lower-skilled jobs than what they had abroad.
"Human capital acquired in Latin America and the Caribbean is valued less than that from Europe, Australia and Canada in the U.S. labor market," she said, "while immigrants with some U.S. education can increase the returns to that acquired previously abroad."
In a third study, co-written with Princeton University sociologist Douglas S. Massey, to be published in Social Science Quarterly in December, the authors looked at immigrants' intentions and mobility in a global economy, connecting immigrants' objective circumstances to satisfaction with life in the United States, intentions with regard to naturalization and settlement, and "concrete behaviors" such as sending money back home and leaving the country.
They found that those people expressing a high degree of U.S. satisfaction are significantly more likely to intend to naturalize and also are more likely to want to stay in the United States forever.
However, those with high earnings and U.S. property are less likely to plan on naturalizing; those with high levels of education are least likely to be satisfied with the United States.
"The picture that emerges from this analysis is of a fluid and dynamic global market for human capital in which the bearers of skills, education and abilities seek to maximize earnings in the short term while retaining little commitment to any particular society or national labor market over the longer term," Akresh said.
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