Acculturation and the Hispanic Diet

Just as Hispanics have altered American cuisine, American culture has also altered the diet of Hispanic Americans. As with many other immigrant groups in the United States, the lifestyle of Hispanic Americans is undergoing a transition away from one based on the traditional values and customs of their ancestry, as they begin to adopt the values and behaviors of their adopted country. With regard to health behaviors, this process of acculturation is typically characterized by a more sedentary lifestyle and a change in dietary patterns. The effects of acculturation on the Hispanic diet are illustrated in national dietary survey data that show that Hispanic Americans who continue to use Spanish as a primary language eat somewhat more healthful diets than those who use English as a primary language. These healthier eating behaviors include lower consumption of fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Additional analysis of these survey data reveals that these dietary differences do not appear to be the result of greater nutritional knowledge or greater awareness of food-disease relationships.

The degradation of diet quality that occurs as Hispanic Americans become acculturated into the mainstream U.S. population occurs in the context of improvements in, rather than degradation of, economic status. For example, first-generation Mexican-American women, despite being of lower

The traditional Hispanic diet includes plenty of grains and legumes. It is somewhat lower in fat and cholesterol than the diets of non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. [Royalty-Free/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.]

socioeconomic status than second-generation Mexican American or non-Hispanic white women, tend to have higher intakes of protein, vitamins A and C, folic acid, and calcium than these other groups. The diets of second-generation Mexican American women more closely resemble those of non-Hispanic white women of similar socioeconomic status.

The process of acculturation and the changing nature of the Hispanic diet has serious implications for the state of Hispanic health. The prevalence of type 2 diabetes mellitus is two to three times higher in Hispanic Americans than in non-Hispanic whites, with an estimated 10 percent of adults over the age of twenty and 25 to 30 percent of those over the age of fifty affected. The prevalence of the disease is especially high among Mexican Americans. Diabetes, a disease characterized by high levels of glucose in the blood, is a major cause of death and disability in the United States. Compared to nondiabetic individuals, those with the disease are also at two to four times higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the country. Accompanying this increased risk of diabetes among Hispanics is a marked increase in the risk of obesity.

Much of the increased risk of diabetes experienced by Hispanic Americans is believed to be attributable to the changing lifestyle that accompanies the acculturation process, including the changing quality of the Hispanic diet and the adoption of a more sedentary lifestyle. These trends are occurring across all segments of the Hispanic population, although the extent of the changes are more pronounced in some subgroups (e.g., Mexican Americans in large urban areas) than in others. Although Hispanic Americans generally smoke less than their non-Hispanic white counterparts, the direction of Hispanic health is also threatened by an increasing frequency of cigarette smoking, particularly among younger segments of the population.

socioeconomic status: level of income and social class protein: complex molecule composed of amino acids that performs vital functions in the cell; necessary part of the diet vitamin: necessary complex nutrient used to aid enzymes or other metabolic processes in the cell prevalence: describing the number of cases in a population at any one time diabetes: inability to regulate level of sugar in the blood glucose: a simple sugar; the most commonly used fuel in cells cardiovascular: related to the heart and circulatory system obesity: the condition of being overweight, according to established norms based on sex, age, and height

PERCENTAGES OF INDIVIDUALS CONSUMING SPECIFIED FOODS,

FROM A ONE-DAY DIETARY

RECALL

Mexican

Other

Non-Hispanic

Food item

Americans

Hispanics

whites

Cereals and pasta

Ready-to-eat cereals

26.2

23.9

30.3

Rice

14.7

29.0

6.1

Pasta

3.7

6.6

8.3

Vegetables

Dark green vegetables

3.2

5.2

9.6

Deep yellow vegetables

9.3

8.6

14.2

Tomatoes

46.2

40.1

39.1

Green beans

3.4

6.3

8.1

Citrus

29.1

29.6

26.1

Other (noncitrus) fruits

43.8

37.7

40.4

Whole milk

37.5

31.3

15.2

Low fat milk

17.6

19.4

30.3

Beef

25.9

25.3

20.5

Processed meats (hot dogs,

sausages, luncheon meats)

23.5

24.2

32.7

Eggs

29.8

24.4

16.9

Legumes

30.6

23.5

11.8

Fats and oils (table fats and salad

dressings)

36.9

44.0

59.0

Sugars and candy

46.0

49.3

54.7

SOURCE: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.

nutrition: the maintenance of health through proper eating, or the study of

Approaches for improving the health of Hispanics need to be broad-based and to consider the complexities of a variety of lifestyle factors. Nutrition education programs aimed at improving the quality of the Hispanic diet are currently based on a combination of preserving some elements of the traditional Hispanic diet—including a reliance on beans, rice, and tortillas— and a change in others—such as reduced consumption of high-fat dairy products and less use of fat in cooking. see also Central Americans and Mexicans, Diets of; South Americans, Diet of.

Braxton D. Mitchell

Bibliography

Aldrich L, and Variyam, J. N. (2000). "Acculturation Erodes the Diet Quality of U.S. Hispanics." Food Review 23:51-55.

Flegal, K. M.; Ezzati, T. M.; Harris, M., et al. (1991). "Prevalence of Diabetes in Mexican Americans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans from the Hispanic Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1982-1984." Diabetes Care 14(Suppl 3):628-638.

Guendelman, S., Abrams, B. (1995). "Dietary Intake among Mexican-American Women: Generational Differences and a Comparison with White Non-Hispanic Women." American Journal of Public Health 85:20-25.

Harris, M. I.; Flegal, K. M.; Cowie, C. C., et al. (1998). "Prevalence of Diabetes, Impaired Fasting Glucose, and Impaired Glucose Tolerance in U.S. Adults: The Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), 1988-94." Diabetes Care 21:518-524.

Hobbs, F., and Stoops, N. (2000). Demographic Trends in the 20th Century. U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 Special Reports, Series CENSR-4. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Romero-Gwynn, E.; Gwynn, D. L.; Grivetti, R., et al. (1993). "Dietary Acculturation among Latinos of Mexican Descent." Nutrition Today (July/Aug.):6-11.

U.S. Census Bureau (1999). The Hispanic Population in the United States: Population Characteristics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

same

Internet Resource

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service (1999). "Data Tables: Food and Nutrient Intake by Hispanic Origins and Race, 1994-1996." Available from <http://www.barc.usda.gov/bhnrc>

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