Unlike parents, immigrant kids eat an American diet

"Food is a big marker of identity, so perhaps children of immigrants feel pressured to fit in," says Molly Dondero. (Credit: Gilbert Mercier/Flickr)

Children of Mexican immigrants in the United States often abandon the generally healthy diet of their mothers for less nutritious American fare.

The change in children’s diets may be related to other research that shows high obesity prevalence among children of Mexican immigrants, researchers say.

“Children in immigrant families are growing up in very different nutritional environments and very different social environments than their parents,” says Molly Dondero, a postdoctoral fellow at the Population Research Institute at Penn State. “Mexican diets, for example, are based much less on processed foods, although this, too, is starting to change.”

The typical American diet, on the other hand, includes more processed foods, less fresh foods, and a reliance on fast food dishes such as hamburgers and pizza.

The findings, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, suggest the dietary quality of first generation youth is worse than expected compared to the quality of their mothers’ diet.

[Teens eat better if parents are home for meals]

Parents typically play an important role in shaping their children’s diet, Dondero says.

“There are primarily two ways that parents can influence a child’s diet. The first is through modeling—the children see what the parents are eating and take after them—and the second is through control, which can include what the parents prepare or permit their children to eat and even what they buy for the household.”

However, the drift from their mother’s diet suggests that other factors are influencing the change.

Food: A marker of identity

One theory is that children of Mexican immigrants are trying to fit into their new culture and eating is one way to express this new cultural identity. For example, the dietary quality of children of immigrants who live in enclaves—areas where many immigrants live—remain more similar to that of their mothers.

“Food is a big marker of identity, so perhaps children of immigrants feel pressured to fit in,” says Dondero. “Determining why children are eating differently from their parents would be the next step in this research.”

Health education professionals may want to examine the audiences for their programs, researchers say. Most healthy-diet programs for children are aimed at the parents.

“Our findings suggest that typical obesity interventions and healthy eating initiatives, which tend to be parent-focused, may be less effective for Mexican immigrant families, or they may need to be better tailored to meet the needs of these families,” Dondero says. “Program developers may want to focus these initiatives on children.”

The National Institutes of Health supported this work.

Source: Penn State