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Sons of Immigrants Have High Obesity Levels, Report Finds

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 4, 2009

The sons of immigrants to the United States suffer from alarmingly high levels of childhood obesity, according to a new report funded by the Foundation for Child Development.

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Thirty-four percent of kindergarten-age immigrant boys are obese or overweight, compared with 25 percent of the sons of native-born Americans, according to an analysis of data collected by the U.S. Education Department. By eighth grade, that number rises to 49 percent, compared with 33 percent among natives. No similar discrepancy was found among girls.

Adult immigrants do not tend to become overweight until they have been in the United States for a while and become more acculturated, but "children from the newest, least acculturated immigrant families tend to be the most at risk of obesity," said the report, "Moving to the Land of Milk and Cookies," which was released this week. It relied on a federal study that tracked 21,000 children from kindergarten to eighth grade, a quarter of whom were children of immigrants.

The higher level of obesity among sons of immigrants cut across socioeconomic levels and was most pronounced among those whose parents do not speak English, the study found.

It was most prevalent among newly arrived Hispanic immigrants and non-Hispanic white immigrants. Black children of immigrants do not face a higher rate of obesity than their native counterparts, and the problem does not show up among Asian children of new arrivals, although it does appear among children of Asian immigrants who have been in the United States for 15 or 20 years, said Jennifer Van Hook of Pennsylvania State University, the report's lead author.

Although the report did not study the reasons for the discrepancy, it cited likely factors such as the prevalence of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages in schools and in advertising directed at children, and the fact that new immigrants are often unaware of the risks of too much junk food or of opportunities for exercise.

Jeffrey Koplan, chairman of the Institute of Medicine's Committee on Childhood Obesity and director of Emory University's Global Health Institute, said the findings do not surprise him. Many immigrants "may be used to a more rural setting overseas where there's no access to soft drinks or they are too expensive, and here they find them all over the place and at a very low cost," he said.

Van Hook said the obesity rates might be influenced by the tendency of immigrant children to take the lead in their families in deciding what to snack on, as well as children's tendency to acculturate faster than adults and to try harder to fit in with American peers.

"I think part of making it in America is to participate in American consumerism, and part of that is eating," she said.

The stigma of obesity might be lower among new arrivals, particularly those from cultures in which extra weight is a sign of prosperity. "A lot of immigrant families come from a place where obesity's not a problem for kids and undereating is a problem," Van Hook said, adding that in another study she and her colleagues had found obesity to be more pronounced among immigrants from less economically developed countries.

As to why the problem is more prevalent among boys, she said it might be because immigrant boys often have more freedom outside the home, whereas girls tend to be more protected and might watch their figure more.

Carmen Bonilla, 58, of Springfield said her family's diet has changed considerably since it moved to the United States from El Salvador two years ago, although she tries to provide nutritious food at home.

"I don't think American food is healthy, because they use a lot of oil, sugar, salt," she said as she sat in the Springfield Mall's food court, where two of her grandchildren feasted on chicken nuggets and french fries and a third ate a kebab. "We eat here only for fun."

One of the nugget-eaters, Samuel, 8, said his father had told him that he should eat more healthfully. "I agree," he said, grinning, "but this is my favorite food. I love the taste of it, fries especially."

A few tables away, Elaine Cabling, 39, of Alexandria said her nephew Christian, 8, had gained a lot of weight since moving from the Philippines two years ago. "We encourage them to eat vegetables, fruits, and drink milk and a lot of water," she said as Christian ate from a container of chocolate chip ice cream. "His mom is worried. She wants him to stop eating the soda and the candies."

Some kids do tone it down after an initial fast-food binge. Kenda Yagura, 13, who moved with his family from Japan to Michigan two years ago, said that at first he dived into the culinary offerings of his new environment. "I loved American food. I ate a lot of junk food. My parents said that they didn't like it, but I liked it."

But his parents watched his diet, cooking Japanese food at home, and on a recent visit to the Pentagon Mall food court, he followed their example and ordered Thai noodles.



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