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Eat Healthy, Grow Strong: Immigrants and Their Americanized Diets

May 14, 2012
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Research shows that when people immigrate to the United States, their diet changes for the worse as they eat more junk food and fewer fruits and vegetables, leading to health problems and obesity. But Brenda Roche doesn't need to see the studies - she witnesses the transformation of such diets firsthand in the community.

"We've seen that as immigrants assimilate into our culture, oftentimes they adopt our eating habits, which tend to be convenience foods that are highly processed," says Roche, a nutrition family and consumer sciences advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension. She cites research that shows within one generation, the children of Hispanic immigrants are at greater risk for developing obesity, heart disease and diabetes than their non-Hispanic American counterparts and "it might be much higher than rates found in their country of origin."

The organization develops and implements community educational programs in Los Angeles County in the areas of nutrition, youth development, urban gardening, horticulture and the environment. It is working with several partners, including the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, on a community garden program funded by First 5 LA.

UC Cooperative staff and volunteers work with urban communities to provide nutrition education, such as reducing consumption of high-fat, high-sodium foods, which are typically found in fast-food restaurants, and adding more fruits and vegetables for improved health. They also offer cooking demonstrations using healthy ingredients and tips on growing produce and preventing chronic disease and illness through diet.

With the county's large multicultural population, they also stress the importance of "preserving cultural traditions using healthier foods," adds Rachel Surls, sustainable food systems advisor at the UC Cooperative. "In our outreach, we talk about gardening, whether in a community or a home garden. Maybe there's a specialty pepper, eggplant or some herb used in a family's cooking tradition that's not readily available or expensive; it's nice to be able to grow it yourself and preserve those traditions."

As an example, Roche notes that "in its true form, Mexican food is healthy. We try to encourage families who have moved here to start thinking about how they prepared foods when they were living in Mexico. It's not the traditional cultural foods that are the major problems. It's the fast food and the Americanized diet."

This article originally appeared on the Best Start website. As part of First 5 LA's Eat Healthy, Grow Strong public education campaign, Best Start is putting the spotlight on organizations that are working in communities to increase access to healthier foods. By partnering with communities at the grassroots level, they're hoping to make long-term changes in the way people think about, buy and eat food.

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