Mexican immigrants quickly adopt US diet

UNC-CHAPEL HILL (US) — Mexicans who migrate to the US often begin eating a typical “American diet,” which may put their health at risk, a new study shows.

While researchers identified some healthy improvements in diet—many Mexicans in the United States eat more fruits and vegetables, low-fat meat and fish, high-fiber bread, and low-fat milk than they did in Mexico—overall Mexicans in the US eat more saturated fat, sugar, salty snacks, pizza, and french fries than they did in Mexico.


Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill caution those changes could lead to higher rates of obesity, heart disease, and certain cancers compared to people in Mexico. The findings are reported in the Journal of Nutrition.

Two other factors make the findings notable. Traditionally, overall mortality rates and death rates from cardiovascular disease and cancer are lower among Hispanic immigrants than non-Hispanic whites, but diet changes are increasing the immigrants’ risks; and the rising proportion of Hispanics in the US population (expected to grow from 1-in-6 in 2010 to 1-in-4 by 2050) means more people could face diet-influenced health issues.

“Mexican immigrants—those born in Mexico—stick with the traditional foods longer,” says Carolina Batis, a Ph.D. candidate in nutrition and a native of Mexico. “The diets of Mexicans born in the US are almost entirely reflecting the diet of the American culture. We’re seeing that families often become completely acculturated to the American diet within one generation in the US.”

Batis and colleagues examined the diets of more than 16,000 people in four groups: Mexicans, Mexicans who have immigrated to the United States, Mexican Americans born in the United States, and non-Hispanic whites in the United States.

They examined data from the Mexican National Nutrition Survey, taken in 1999, and the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 1999-2006. The study examined children (2-11 years old) and female adolescents and adults (12-49 years).

The changes ranged from what people drink to what they add to their food. For example, the study showed most Mexicans drink their coffee black, but when they come to the United States, they start drinking it with milk or cream and sugar. Few Mexicans drink fruit juice, but that number nearly tripled when they migrate to the United States.

Consumption of sugar-sweetened sodas also nearly doubled for Mexicans who have immigrated. Non-Hispanic whites in the United States drink more sugar-sweetened sodas than Mexicans in Mexico, but not as many as Mexicans born in the United States.

“Our research showed us that the diets of both the Mexican Americans born in Mexico and those born in the US have more in common with the American diet than with the Mexican diet,” Batis says. “The diets of children and adolescent girls were even closer to the American diet of non-Hispanic whites than the Mexican adult women.”

One big difference, Batis says, is that people in the United States eat fewer corn tortillas than people in Mexico. Corn tortillas are low-fat, low-sodium, high-fiber foods, from which Mexicans typically get about 25 percent of their daily calories.

“We do need to look at this more closely, to see if the health effects of corn tortillas are really there,” Batis says. “If eating fewer tortillas means the people eat a greater variety of healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, then the difference in healthfulness of the diets may not be as great. But if they substitute with chips, pizza, and french fries, then the corn tortillas may be a better choice.”

There are some benefits of adopting an American diet, Batis says. For example, Mexicans who immigrated to the United States, and even first-generation Hispanics born in the United States, report eating more fruits and vegetables than people living in Mexico, and even more than second-generation Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites.

“A possible reason is that in the traditional Mexican diet, vegetables are used mostly as ingredients in soups or with rice, pasta, or meat,” Batis says. “After immigrating to the US, they probably began eating more salads and vegetable side dishes. We don’t know why that trend doesn’t continue in later generations.”

Researchers from Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health contributed to the study.

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