Immigrants’ Health Hurt by ‘American’ Diet

Across the street from the Health Advocacy Project of Little Village on Chicago’s Southwest Side, a restaurant serves carnitas (meat) and chorizo sausage, along with carrot and pineapple juice. A 4-foot sign nearby advertises three liters of Pepsi for $1.39. To the west, Cermak Road is dotted with signs advertising “carnitas” in big red letters. A Coca-Cola sign hangs outside Hector’s Foods and a KFC chicken restaurant stands a few blocks away.

Carmen Gonzalez, a promotora, or health promoter, said the overload of food choices, usually the wrong ones, is her chief competition. Gonzalez, 51, counsels mostly Mexican immigrant families who walked more and ate differently before coming to the United States, she said. “Latinos come from a small village where there wasn’t a lot,” she said in Spanish. “Then when they come here and begin to earn money, they begin to buy things that are harmful, that can cause weight gain.”

When Gonzalez arrived in Chicago from Durango, Mexico, 33 years ago, she gained more than 20 pounds in the first few years, then added another 15 while pregnant with her son. Since 1977, she has lived with Type II diabetes, which runs in her family and can be brought on by poor diet and weight gain.

Less than 5 feet tall and now 118 pounds, she controls the disease with medication, daily exercise and a healthy diet. As a promotora, she contacts three to five Latino families every week through visits to homes, churches, schools and health fairs. Ten health promoters work for the advocacy project, a non-profit founded by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Nursing in 1989.

Victims of diabetes are everywhere, said Jona Gonzalez (no relation), a 61-year-old promotora whose husband is a diabetic. “Here in Little Village, we see more or less one in every family,” she said.

Asian and Hispanic immigrants need better health education, according to the American Diabetes Association.

The children of these immigrants are more than twice as likely to be overweight–”thus at risk for diabetes–”than their foreign-born parents, shows a June 1998 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The survey of more than 13,000 students in grades 7 to 12 found that 26.5 percent were obese. Among the more than 3,000 children of immigrants surveyed, nearly 32 percent were obese.

And data released in January by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 6 percent of Hispanic adults in the United States and Puerto Rico have been diagnosed with diabetes, twice the rate of white Americans.

“We’re starting to see adult diabetes in children, particularly children of color,” said Dr. Frank Thorp, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago Children’s Hospital. “Immigrants who had a leaner type of lifestyle in their native country fall into the American way of eating, often overeating.”

Francisco Ramos, executive director of the advocacy project, points to a cultural confusion about food and exercise. “Many people that come here are from rural Mexico. They used to walk long distances and work the fields,” Ramos said. “It is very common that a family goes to Blockbuster and rents six or seven movies and watches them all weekend, because they always wanted to do that in their rural village. Then they go back to the factory on Monday–”they get no exercise.”

Poverty also plays a role. “It’s hard to teach families about nutrition when their frame of mind is on survival, on –˜How do I get food on the table at the end of the month?'” Ramos said.

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