Why are Foreign-Born Immigrants Healthier than Later Generations?

Growing up in El Salvador, Karla remembers the world as one big playground. Every afternoon, she’d go swimming in nearby rivers, run around or play sports with her siblings.

“We were 10 children – a soccer team,” she says.

Living just outside Boston, she knows her two daughters won’t chase the ball as much. She and her husband work constantly, so her 4-year-old doesn’t spend as much time outside. And for now, her newborn sister isn’t a very energetic playmate.

“There’s a huge difference in growing up in my country and here,” says Karla.

Yes, there is.

It may seem counterintuitive, but studies have repeatedly shown that foreign-born immigrant children – often with fractured families, language barriers, stressful adjustment periods and a dearth of medical resources – are healthier than later generations of U.S.-born kids.

“Foreign-born immigrant children engage in a variety of more positive healthy behaviors than their U.S.-born peers. They smoke less, drink less, and eat more nutritional and fewer snack foods,” wrote authors Krista M. Perreira and India J. Ornelas, in The Future of Children, a joint publication by Princeton University and The Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C.-based policy institute.

The authors assembled data from numerous studies, many of which focused on Hispanic immigrant children. When it comes to physical activity, for example: foreign-born Mexicans watch significantly less TV and videos and had fewer periods of “low intensity physical activity” than U.S.-born Mexican-Americans, according to a 2003 Social Science & Medicine study on adolescents. Likewise, U.S.-born Cubans spend more time playing computer/video games than foreign-born Cubans.

Nutrition was also better among first-generation immigrants:

“Foreign-born Hispanic-American adolescents had a healthier dietary pattern, consuming more rice (Mexicans), fruits (Mexicans, Puerto Ricans), and vegetables (Mexicans, Cubans) than their U.S.-born counterparts,” the same study stated.

“In Mexico, we eat together and we eat food made at home,” said Olivia Ramirez, a health program coordinator at Universidad Popular, a Chicago community center.

Here, “if the mother works 12 continuous hours and the father does too, it’s much easier to buy your child a pizza or a hamburger and he has to eat alone, or however he wants,” said Ramirez.

Traditionally, Mexican-Americans’ – 63 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population – roots lie in more rural regions, and this might explain their initial, stronger diets.

“We know obesity is higher for people living in urban areas, and we know Mexican immigrants come from less urbanized areas,” said Jennifer Van Hook, a professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University.

Nevertheless, foreign-born immigrant diets aren’t always superior. And, perhaps, as American habits trickle south, they’ll continue to resemble their American counterparts even more.

A 2009 Journal of Community Health study reported that Hispanic first-generation children had 19.4 percent prevalence of obesity. That number rose for second-generation children to 21.7 percent, but it dropped for later generations of U.S.-born children to 17.2 percent.

Changing countries has also adversely affected alcohol and drug use among American-born Hispanics, report Perreira and Ornelas, citing a 2008 Prevention Science study.

Rates for “problematic alcohol use” increase from 6.9 percent in foreign-born youth to 21.6 percent in generations with U.S.-born parents, as do those for “repeated marijuana use” from 7.9 percent to 32.5 percent, and those for “repeated other drug use,” 3.3 percent up to 12.7 percent, respectively.

“First-generation youths had lower age-adjusted rates for suicide attempts (1.7%) than did later-generations (4.9%),” the same study reported.

Perreira believes that U.S.-born immigrant children maybe be exposed to longer periods of isolation and discrimination than recent arrivals.

“They may have grown up always being treated by others as an outsider,” says Perreira.  “That sense of marginalization that the society imposes on an adolescent can be quite hurtful.”

But researchers, like Perreira and Ornelas, have also suggested that foreign-born immigrants may possess some intangible quality making them healthier.

“The big million dollar question out there in the literature – and it really hasn’t been well-answered – is whether there is something about the people who choose to migrate to the United States that isn’t measured in these studies,” said Nancy S. Landale, a sociology and demography professor at Pennsylvania State University.

At least one person seems convinced.

“I think it takes something extra to immigrate to another culture,” says Birgitte Espitia, a therapist at El Futuro, a group of North Carolina clinics offering immigrants mental health and substance abuse services. “The fact that you already had that strength in you is bringing out the personal resiliency – and you’re probably not considering things such as suicide as much.”
In their article, Perreira and Ornelas also suggest that family structure may positively help first- generation immigrants.

Hispanic children with foreign-born parents live in two-parent households at greater rates than later generations.  For example, 51.6 percent of Hispanic foreign-born children live with both their married parents. In contrast, only 43.6 percent of U.S.-born children with U.S.-born parents live with their married parents, according to another article recently published in The Future of Children, by Landale, Van Hook and Kevin J.A. Thomas, another Pennsylvania State University Professor.

“It was just my parents and I,” says Humberto Castro, recalling his first two years after immigrating from San Luis Potosí, Mexico to California.

Though they lived a middle class lifestyle in Mexico, his family first moved to a downtrodden area around Stockton. Especially at first, his parents were very strict and protective.

“We played cards a lot. We took a lot of walks. And we went to the public library a lot,” says Castro.

Of course, once in the United States, it’s up to immigrant parents to adapt to unfamiliar conditions. For now, Karla says she takes her 4-year-old to the park as often as possible and they walk in the afternoon.  She’s already filled out applications to enroll her daughter in ballet classes.

She’s grateful about one thing: her daughter likes vegetables and isn’t asking for junk food. Except for a little chicken, she barely eats meat.

“We’re not worried that she’s going to become obese,” says Karla.  “When I give her a hamburger, she says 'Give me the lettuce, don’t give me the meat.'”

“It’s an advantage for me,” says Karla. “I don’t have to prohibit her from certain things.”

Ruth Samuelson is a freelance writer living in Mexico City. She can be reached at ruth.samuelson@gmail.com.

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