A new study suggests that Mexican immigrant kids are trading the diets of their parents for French fries and hamburgers—and it's having a negative impact on their health.
Researchers Molly Dondero and Jennifer Van Hook at Penn State's Population Research Institute examined how immigration affects diet for a new study that will be published in Social Science and Medicine next month.
They took data from a national dietary survey of Americans and focused on Mexican-American kids ages two through 15 and their mothers. Each subject was assigned a score of 0 to 100 based on how healthy a diet they reported eating. Then the researchers looked at the differences between the scores of mothers and children, while controlling for the mothers' employment status, education, and other variables.
Families in which both the mother and the child were born in the U.S. had little discrepancy in health scores. But Mexican-born mothers reported significantly healthier diets than their U.S.-born children or Mexican-born children. In some cases, that could mean the difference between eating the recommended levels of fruit and vegetables and eating no fruit or vegetables at all.
Dondero and Van Hook suggested that the difference in healthy eating likely meant that Mexican immigrant kids are eating more American food—which is less healthy than a typical Mexican diet—sooner than their parents. "Food is a big marker of identity, so perhaps children of immigrants feel pressured to fit in," Dondero said in a statement. Meanwhile, their parents might be more likely to hold onto the diets of their home country.
Interestingly, immigrant kids who live in neighborhoods with many other immigrants are more likely to mirror their mothers' diets.
The study isn't just a curiosity factor—it could have an important impact on public health policies. After all, Mexican boys who grow up in immigrant families are more likely to be obese than boys of any other racial or ethnic group in the country. And a fourth of all children in the U.S. live in immigrant families.
One takeaway: Maybe encouraging kids to eat like more their immigrant parents—and less like their fast food-loving American friends—might help fight obesity.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.