Helping New Immigrants Stay Healthy in the American Melting Pot

As a child of immigrants, growing up I ate traditional foods almost every day, and rarely indulged in the typical American diet. Eating healthy was not very difficult as a child; first of all, my mother was doing all the cooking. Second of all, traditional Indian diets are extremely friendly to a healthy palate.  Not all people who immigrate to the United States, however, are able to maintain the same type of diet or lifestyle that they had in their native countries. Usually, as people move to a new country, especially when their native country is a developing country in a different part of the world, their diets tend to change.  This is a process called “dietary acculturation,” and it just means the change in diet that happens when two different cultures meet.

So why does dietary acculturation happen?  Part of the reason is that people start to find new uses for traditional foods.  Another part of the process is that certain foods are now excluded from the diet (for example, if a person cannot find that item in the US) and other foods are introduced to the diet after moving to the US.

All of these processes have an effect on people, either in the long term or the short term.  For example, changes in eating habits and diet can cause health disparities.  These can eventually evolve and lead to differences in healthy eating.  Everyone knows by now that diet and health status are closely linked; sometimes the changes in diet and lifestyle can lead to nutrition-related conditions (like diabetes). Other times, the types of foods that people eat actually improve in quality, but people tend to eat far more than they did before immigrating. This should come as no surprise, considering that America is an overweight country (in fact, one third of America is obese).


A big question for new and non-recent immigrants, public health professionals, health advocates and even some politicians is, how do we compete with these challenges to healthy eating that many immigrants face in the United States?  There are many different ideas, ranging from cooking classes for new immigrants, which would demonstrate how to adapt traditional and non-traditional foods and ingredients.  While that sounds like a great idea, there are many questions the idea raises; who would be responsible for holding these classes?  Who would be responsible for funding these classes?  How would we make sure that those projects remain sustainable?  Other opportunities to improve on healthy eating outcomes in immigrant populations would be to increase opportunities for farmer’s markets.  Studies show that when afforded the option, some immigrants prefer farmers markets to their local grocer for produce options.  The reasons vary, but include the fact that nutritional value is sometimes measured subjectively by perceived freshness of food, which is far greater in the farm-to-table market, versus the mass-produced grocery style market.  This need for farmer’s markets and similar style vending is especially valuable in food deserts, which was a recent topic on this blog.


One great idea being put into practice by the Rochester Health Community Partnership (RHCP) is a collaborative and community-based approach to targeting immigrant populations who need guidance in healthy eating.  The collaboration, a project called “Healthy Immigrant Families: Working Together To Move More and To Eat Well” is taking place between Mayo Clinic, Rochester Public Schools’ Hawthorne Education Center, Winona State University, and several other community organizations, like local health services groups, cultural groups, and organizations like the Boys and Girls Club of Rochester and Rochester Area Family YMCA.  Each party will be working to develop sustainable interventions that target immigrants’ lifestyle choices regarding nutrition, as well as other factors like physical activity. Like most community-based participatory projects, this project will aim to involve all partners equally, in order to capitalize on everybody’s strengths and maximize learning capabilities.


Of course, time will tell how valuable this project, being funded by the National Institutes of Health, proves to be.  Food justice, the emergence of chronic diseases due to diet, and food policy are each important topics that have emerged in recent years.  If the RHCP project goes well, it could be an opportunity for other diverse cities in the US to reach out to their community based organizations to do the same, and foster healthier and happier communities.


More information on the RHCP healthy eating project is available here.


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