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U.S. food isn't doing Mexican-American teens any favors

The United States offers new opportunity to Mexican-American immigrants. Unfortunately, new research shows it's the chance to join our obesity ranks.

America, the land of the free... and the fat. A new study published in this month’s Journal of Nutrition shows that second- and third-generation Mexican-American youth are more likely to be obese than those who were not born in the United States.

According to the study, unusual in its focus on 12- to 19-year-olds instead of adults, second-gen Mexican Americans are two and a half times more likely to be obese than their first-gen peers; third-gen are twice as likely. Given that this group is the country's fastest growing demographic, that spells serious consequences for U.S. health care.

The traditional Mexican diet focuses on healthy fruits and vegetables, such as papaya, squash, avocado, corn, and beans, with smaller amounts of meat than a typical American diet. Unfortunately, the more removed teens get from their culinary roots, the more high-fat, high-sodium foods they eat, along with copious amounts of high-fructose soda.

According to Jihong Liu, PhD, the study’s lead author, “Our findings... verified what we expected: the greater the acculturation that a young person has experienced, the less healthy their diet.”

Is food's affordability the issue?

Researchers lay some of the blame on the purported “lower socioeconomic status [of many immigrant families who] therefore cannot afford to buy fruits and vegetables and healthier foods, which are more expensive.”

But according to Martin Lopez, president and founder of Herbs of Mexico, a natural products retailer in East Los Angeles, “I don’t agree so much with the affordability or access to healthy foods for immigrants. What I believe is true is the accessibility of unhealthy foods for these young people.” Lopez spoke to retailers, manufacturers, and other attendees of Natural Products Expo West on Friday, March 9, in a session titled “Marketing to the Hispanic and Latino Populations.” In his experience, he said, education is the key. "We pass out tons of literature, focusing more on wellness before illness," he explained. 

According to Liu, “Future studies should continue to examine the barriers that Mexican-American adolescents encounter in maintaining their native diet and identify strategies to address those barriers.”

What do you think will turn the tide on Mexican-American obesity? Leave a comment.

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