Immigration Causes Obesity?

It’s just possible that immigration causes obesity. A recent systematic review found that immigration and acculturation into the U.S. leads to higher BMI. How does that square with a conviction that obesity is driven solely by personal choice and responsibility (or a lack of it)? Could it be that immigration to America is an unhealthy choice?

Analysis of the reasons for this effect typically focuses upon immigrants from lower income cultures taking on poor dietary and physical activity habits from American culture. The New York Times recently stuck almost entirely to this perspective when they published narratives about the impact of American culture on immigrant health.

Advocates for immigrants take strong exception to the single-minded preoccupation with lifestyle choices. Says Miriam Pérez in a recent commentary:

What infuriates me about these kinds of perspectives is that they often overlook the larger systemic elements at play in exchange for a focus on what seems to be a problem resulting from bad choices by individuals.

Meanwhile, there is a growing body of research documenting the impact of racism on our health, implying that there may be a much more nuanced and systemic answer to the question of why second-generation Mexican-Americans have higher rates of high blood pressure and diabetes than their parents. These possible explanations could include everything from the stress that results from experiencing racism to the ways in which racism affects health care.

Pérez makes an excellent point — yet another instance in obesity, nutrition, and health when established bias seemingly triumphs over objective inquiry.

Click here to read the review of acculturation and obesity in migrant populations, click here to read another review from Susan Averett and colleagues, click here to read the article from the New York Times, and click here to read the Pérez commentary.

Somebody’s Little Girl, photograph © Thomas Hawk / flickr

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