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June 9, 2008

Adopting American Habits and Behaviors May Be Harmful to Immigrant Health

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Immigrants who move into neighborhoods settled largely by others from their country of origin may stave off the pounds that newcomers typically gain after migrating to the United States, according to a new Smith College-led study.

That is true for one population in particular: Hispanics. Those living in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods have lower body mass index (BMI) scores – the standard measure of a person’s body fat – than Hispanics whose neighborhoods have greater integration with the American culture.

In the study, researchers examined information on more than 13,000 New Yorkers from all five of the city’s boroughs, who voluntarily had their height and weight measured. The data, collected at community-based health centers and hospitals between January 2000 and December 2002, was used to calculate each person’s BMI.

For Hispanics, whether the neighborhood is largely English speaking or not is an important predictor of body size. The less English spoken in a neighborhood, the less weight gain occurs, according to researchers, whose findings appear in a recent issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 

This is not the case for other ethnic categories represented in the study – Asian Americans, African Americans and Caribbean Americans – for whom neighborhood immigrant composition is not connected to body size.

With obesity a significant public health concern in the U.S., the study sought to clarify the ways in which neighborhood factors influence weight gain, according to lead author Yoosun Park, assistant professor, Smith College School for Social Work.

“Simply put: the longer an immigrant lives in the U.S., the heavier that immigrant becomes. Scholars theorize this weight gain as due, in part, to acculturation – the adoption of U.S. diet and physical activity habits,” said Park. “Although in the popular imagination, acculturation is thought to be a positive factor for immigrants, in many arenas of health, acculturation has been shown to have a negative effect.”

The new study supports earlier research that found that weight gain is most consistent and significant among Hispanic immigrants to the U.S., who face a particularly high risk of obesity and attendant health problems even when socioeconomic status is taken into consideration.

Park collaborated with faculty members at Columbia University, including Kathryn M. Neckerman, James Quinn, Christopher Weiss and Andrew Rundle. The study was funded with a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Rundle’s research is also supported by the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities.


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