Do Immigrant Kids Get Fat to Fit In?

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Many foreign-born American citizens have said they feel that their fellow U.S. citizens question their Americanness. This spurning can be particularly difficult for immigrants’ U.S.-born children: some Asian-American kids, for instance, have sought plastic surgery or blue contact lenses to give their eyes a more “American” appearance. Now comes evidence that immigrants’ kids may even eat more in an effort to fit in with U.S.-born kids, which is to say they try to be fat.

The study, which will be published next month in Psychological Science, notes that by the late 1990s, 27% of Asian-American teens born to immigrant Asian parents were obese, compared with 25% of white American adolescents.

The authors of the study — a team led by Maya Guendelman of the University of California, Berkeley — begin with a survey they conducted, asking college students about embarrassing food memories from childhood. When questioned about bringing a dish for elementary-school lunch “that your parents cooked at home,” 68% of Asian-American students said they would have been uncomfortable. Only 27% of white American students responded the same way.

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The Asian-American students listed chicken feet, fish eyes and pig-blood clots in their lunches as being especially embarrassing. None of the white American kids surveyed could think of a single dish they brought to school that would have embarrassed them. (Speaking as a former food writer, I happen to love the chicken feet I’ve eaten in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Fish eyes are O.K., but I have never tried pig-blood clots. And I hope I never do.)

The authors of the Psychological Science paper then conducted two experiments. In the first, they had a white American researcher approach various students who had either a white or Asian appearance. Then the researcher asked: Do you speak English? A control group, which alos included white and Asian-American participants, were not asked about their language skills. (Total number of participants in both groups: 53.)

The method was designed to make the first group feel threatened about their Americanness, while the other group had no reason to think about it. Then, everyone was asked to write down a list of their favorite foods.

The Asian-Americans in the threatened group (75%) were significantly more likely than the non-threatened students (25%) to list prototypically American dishes — chicken tenders, hot dogs and the like — as their favorites. They rarely listed Asian food. White Americans’ favorite-food lists did not differ between the groups.

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In the second experiment, the researchers recruited 51 Asian-American students at the University of Washington in Seattle. These students were shown a fake food-delivery website that included links to six cuisine options — Asian, Greek, Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern or American. When students clicked on “Asian,” they got a list that included the traditional Korean dish bibimbap as well as chicken teriyaki. When the students clicked on “American,” they got a menu that listed, among other items, fried chicken and grilled cheese.

Some of the students — and, remember, this time they were all Asian-American — were then told, “You have to be an American to be in this study.” Once again, the idea was to threaten this group about whether they were “American enough.” Then, the students were asked to pick a dish to eat.

The threatened group chose so-called American dishes more often than the control group did. The dishes actually did not differ significantly in calories, although the authors reason that students probably perceived burgers and fries to be more caloric than bibimbap. Thus the idea is that they were willing to get fat to fit in.

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I’m a bit skeptical of that conclusion. It makes sense to me that the children of immigrants would want to eat a burger instead of a chicken foot in order to conform to local behavior, but I wonder how many people would actually try to get fat to look more like their portly American counterparts. (It’s possible, though, that kids’ attempts to fit in may contribute to inadvertent weight gain.) Vanity surely trumps conformity, even — or especially — when it comes to college students. Now pass me a bowl of fish eyes.


Read my health columns on Twitter @JohnAshleyCloud