11:37pm Thursday 19 October 2017

Mexican immigrants’ diets raise risks of obesity, heart disease

Some of these changes are good – many Mexicans in the United States eat more fruits and vegetables, low-fat meat and fish, high-fiber bread and low-fat milk, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health.

But overall, as Mexicans in the United States eat more saturated fat, sugar, dessert and salty snacks, pizza and french fries, their diet is less healthy than what they ate in Mexico. That could lead to higher rates of obesity and overweight, heart disease and certain cancers compared to people in Mexico, nutrition researchers cautioned.

Two other factors make the findings notable. Traditionally, overall mortality rates and death rates from cardiovascular disease and cancer are lower among Hispanic immigrants than non-Hispanic whites, but diet changes are increasing the immigrants’ risks; and the rising proportion of Hispanics in the U.S. population (expected to grow from 1-in-6 in 2010 to 1-in-4 by 2050) means more people could face diet-influenced health issues.

The study was published online today (Sept. 1) in the Journal of Nutrition.

“Mexican immigrants – those born in Mexico – stick with the traditional foods longer,” said Carolina Batis, a Ph.D. candidate in nutrition at UNC and a native of Mexico. “The diets of Mexicans born in the U.S. are almost entirely reflecting the diet of the American culture. We’re seeing that families often become completely acculturated to the American diet within one generation in the U.S.”

Batis and her colleagues examined the diets of more than 16,000 people in four groups: Mexicans, Mexicans who have immigrated to the United States, Mexican Americans born in the United States, and non-Hispanic whites in the United States. They examined data from the Mexican National Nutrition Survey, taken in 1999, and the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 1999-2006. The study examined children (2-11 years old) and female adolescents and adults (12-49 years).

The changes ranged from what people drink to what they add to their food. For example, the study showed that most Mexicans drink their coffee black, but when they come to the United States, they start drinking it with milk or cream and sugar. Few Mexicans drink fruit juice, but that number nearly tripled when they migrate to the United States. Consumption of sugar-sweetened sodas also nearly doubled for Mexicans who have immigrated. Non-Hispanic whites in the United States drink more sugar-sweetened sodas than Mexicans in Mexico, but not as many as Mexicans born in the United States.

“Our research showed us that the diets of both the Mexican Americans born in Mexico and those born in the U.S. have more in common with the American diet than with the Mexican diet,” Batis said. “The diets of children and adolescent girls were even closer to the American diet of non-Hispanic whites than the Mexican adult women.”

One big difference, Batis said, is that people in the United States eat fewer corn tortillas than people in Mexico. Corn tortillas are low-fat, low-sodium, high-fiber foods, from which Mexicans typically get about 25 percent of their daily calories.

“We do need to look at this more closely, to see if the health effects of corn tortillas are really there,” Batis said. “If eating fewer tortillas means the people eat a greater variety of healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, then the difference in healthfulness of the diets may not be as great. But if they substitute with chips, pizza and french fries, then the corn tortillas may be a better choice.”

There are some benefits of adopting an American diet, Batis said. For example, Mexicans who immigrated to the United States, and even first-generation Hispanics born in the United States, report eating more fruits and vegetables than people living in Mexico, and even more than second-generation Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites.

“A possible reason is that in the traditional Mexican diet, vegetables are used mostly as ingredients in soups or with rice, pasta or meat,” Batis said. “After immigrating to the U.S., they probably began eating more salads and vegetable side dishes. We don’t know why that trend doesn’t continue in later generations.”

While the findings of the study were mixed, Batis said, one thing is clear. “We need to continue educating Mexican Americans about the health effects of some aspects of the American diet,” she said. “Embrace the high-fiber breads, low-fat milk and lean meats and fish, but watch out for the sugars, salty snacks and french fries. It’s very similar to the message we have for everyone in the U.S. Be conscious of what you are eating.”

In addition to Batis, the study’s authors were Barry M. Popkin, Ph.D., W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at UNC, and Lucia Hernandez-Barrera, Simon Barquera and Juan Rivera, all of the Nutrition and Health Research Center, National Institute of Public Health, Cuernavaca, Mexico.

For more information, see http://jn.nutrition.org/content/early/recent

Note: Batis can be reached at batis@email.unc.edu.

Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, (919) 966-7467, ramona_dubose@unc.edu
News Services contact: Patric Lane, (919) 962-8596, patric_lane@unc.edu


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