Are Immigrants Living the American Dream or a Health Nightmare?

Thursday, March 30th, 2006
This post was written by Melanie Matthews

As the adage goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” But according to a March 2006 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), immigrants to the U.S. will stay healthier by hanging on to their native eating habits instead of embracing American nutritional trends. As noted by Dr. Dean Ornish on Newsweek’s Health website, the CDC study found that recent immigrants reported significantly better physical and mental health (such as lower rates of obesity and high blood pressure) than their U.S.-born counterparts, despite having limited access to healthcare and little or no health insurance.

However, extended stays in this country are proving hazardous to immigrants’ health. The study found that people from other countries (African-American, Asian and Hispanic) who move to the United States become progressively less healthy the longer they stay in this country. Immigrants residing in the United States for five years or more were 54 percent more likely to have high blood pressure and 25 percent more likely to have cardiovascular diseases, for example, than those who lived here less than five years. Think about the impact on healthcare costs when those uninsured patients hit the healthcare system at that five-year juncture.

Dr. Ornish recommends that America begin to export healthier ways of eating. He’s working with American companies who have a worldwide presence to improve the nutritional value of the foods they export to other countries so as to cut down on chronic illness, with record progress. That’s a great idea for the countries on the receiving end, but many of those foreigners may never visit this country.

As a corollary to this corporate effort, Americans should be embarrassed enough by these findings to become walking ambassadors for health to the immigrants among us. Instead of embracing the latest diet craze (goodbye South Beach, hello Sonoma), we should shed sedentary lifestyles and follow the advice of the myriad of health experts at our fingertips. We should join workplace wellness initiatives launched by employers hoping to curb healthcare costs and raise productivity. We should log in to the healthcare information portals developed by our health plans, not just to check claim status but to benefit from the preventative care information that resides there. We should listen to our doctors when they tell us to lose weight, stop smoking, avoid stress and eat well. And maybe we should ask our newly arrived Asian and Mediterranean neighbors for a taste of their cuisines, which by all accounts are a lot healthier than ours.

We also must recruit our schools and our children in this effort. A healthy revamping of school lunches — whether packed at home or bought in school—can teach the right nutritional lessons to school-age offspring of these ailing immigrants. It should also make a dent in those rising obesity rates that haunt us.

It’s not likely that the CDC data will slow the flow of immigrants to our shores; the lure of the American dream is too potent. But a shift toward smarter eating and living will allow us to skim the unhealthy habits from this melting pot.

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