American Culture and Diet: Why Some Immigrants Become Unhealthy

By: Carlene Helble- Elite Nutrition Intern

One of my favorite things to do is learn about foods from other cultures…and try them too! Different cuisines not only broaden your palate’s horizons, but they allow you to try some great produce that is uncommon to US grocery stores. Many immigrants residing in the US are having problems meeting the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables because what they are comfortable with is just not there. Imagine being in a foreign country looking for your favorite fruit and never seeing it. Ho-hum.

Dragon Fruit From the Veggie

The May 2010 American Dietetics Association Journal published a study that looked into the availability of culturally specific fruits and vegetables available in African American and Latino communities in Chicago. The study found that stores located in these neighborhoods were more likely to carry culturally relevant fruits and vegetables to the dominant group. But hardly! Only one out of the sixteen culturally specific foods studied was found in the majority of African American grocery stores. The food? Dried pinto beans, but no fruits or vegetables. Latino neighborhoods faired better with seven out of sixteen culturally specific foods available in the majority of stores. The seven foods included more fresh produce but no where near the variety of their normal choices: avocado, mango, papaya, chayote squash, tomatillo, black beans, and garbanzo beans. This restricted availability to culturally specific produce may be a barrier to adequate fruit and vegetable consumption.

Another study the ADA published in the journal was on the dietary quality among Latinos in the US. With a population of roughly 44 million, figures show that the Latino population as a whole is disproportionately affected by obesity and chronic conditions like type two diabetes. Obesity and type two diabetes are both diet related. The poor dietary quality the study speaks of includes low fruit and vegetable intake, consumption of high fat, and high sugar foods. As evidenced by the first study, fruits and vegetables commonly used in Latino cooking that make the native diet nutrient dense, are extremely difficult to obtain in most US grocery stores. The study also found that sodium intake was related to the level of acculturation. The more assimilated to mainstream US culture the participant was, the higher the sodium intake.

So what can be done? The findings suggest the best way to increase fruit and vegetable intake is to provide a greater selection of culturally common produce to grocery stores. Imagine being able to walk into your grocer to be met with the most enormous selection of interesting, different, and delicious produce you have ever seen. A diverse and larger produce section benefits everyone. Make it your goal this summer to try a new fresh fruit or vegetable that is a staple in another culture. Think of it as a wallet friendly vacation! Use City Search to locate an ethnic grocer near you.