The Science of Sustainability

Cultural Pressure Encourages Poor Eating Habits In Immigrants

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How do we make healthy eating cool? Image courtesy of f_mafra.

People who immigrate to the United States from traditionally healthy cultures usually develop Western disease patterns within one or two generations. Since genetic changes cannot occur this rapidly, environmental factors, particularly diet, are considered to be primary the reason for the shift.

While it has been proposed that dietary changes are the result of having access to less healthy foods, new research suggests that poor food choices are often made not from preference but from pressure to fit in as an American.

In a new study to be published in the upcoming issue of Psychological Science, researchers from Stanford and UC Berkeley explored the eating choices made by Asian-American and white college students when put in situations that threaten their American identity.

The first part of the experiment asked students to write down their favorite foods, but first prefaced some of the students with the question, "Do you speak English?" All the students could speak fluent English, but of the Asian-American students that were asked the question 75% included a stereotypical American food in their food preferences, compared to 25% who had not been asked the question. There was no difference in preferences of white students with or without the question.

To test if cultural pressure affects eating habits directly, researchers performed a similar experiment but offered students dishes from typical American and Asian restaurants. Before the experiment, however, some students were told, "Actually, you have to be American to be in this experiment."

Asian-American students who were asked the question were more likely to choose the American food options than the students who were not asked the question. Subsequently their choices were less healthy and they ate an extra 182 calories in the meal.

Attitudes about food and social pressure can greatly impact eating habits, and this study is consistent previous findings that overweight people tend to have overweight friends. Bad eating habits aren't just individual choices, but reflect societal pressures and group psychology.

But the question remains, how do we make healthy eating cool?

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Category: Health

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Darya Pino

About the Author ()

Darya Pino is a Ph.D trained scientist, San Francisco foodie, food and health writer and advocate of local, seasonal foods. She shares her unique scientific perspective on health and enthusiasm for delicious foods at her website Summer Tomato. Follow her on Twitter @summertomato.