New immigrants find life in America can challenge their healthby Ambar Espinoza, Minnesota Public Radio
Latino immigrants are often healthier when they arrive in the United States than they are five years later. There's a significant body of research that shows their health begins to decline rapidly as they assimilate into the American culture.
St. Paul, Minn. — Most Latin American immigrants come from a culture where fast food and junk food are expensive. But once they move here, they find it's filling and cheap.
"Basically, there's a lot of junk food that is available," says Dr. Gisele Bouroncle, a physician at La Clinica in St. Paul. Most of her patients are Spanish-speaking immigrants.
"So they eat more carbohydrates, bad fats, like more saturated fats, more hamburgers, more pizzas," Bouroncle says.
That's not a good diet for anyone. But it's convenient food that makes up the diet for many people, including new immigrants.
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the longer Latino immigrants live here, the less healthy they are. The CDC study says Latino immigrants are as likely as Americans to become obese, and develop hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
A report by the University of Minnesota says it's also the American lifestyle getting in the way of immigrants' health. Researchers call this phenomenon the "healthy migrant effect."
Bouroncle sees this first-hand in her patients at La Clinica.
"When they are back home in Mexico, in Venezuela, in Colombia, in different countries, you walk more, you exercise more, and you don't eat as much as when you come here," Bouroncle says. "And depression is probably adding to eating more."
Bouroncle says when immigrant parents move to the U.S. they often don't know what to feed their children, much less how to teach them about eating healthy.
"Since they are little, we have to teach them how to eat -- a good nutrition," Bouroncle explains. "Also the misconception of the Latinos that we have, is that our kids have to be 'gorditos.' They have to be overweight so they will be healthy. But it's not true."
The Latino misconception that fat children are healthy children may stem from perhaps being underfed in their home countries. And now, they're living in the land of plenty.
When Gisele Bouroncle sees her patients gain weight and develop diseases, like diabetes, she sends them to Arlene Becker. Becker is a bilingual and bicultural dietician at La Clinica, who teaches people about portion control and shows her patients how to read nutrition labels.
"A lot of our people drink too much pop. It's amazing," Becker says. "I see it more with our diabetics. They might come in with a very, very high blood glucose. And because diabetes -- one of the symptoms is thirst, they go to pop. What they don't know is that one can of pop offers nine to 10 teaspoons of sugar."
Becker encourages her patients to try to cook from scratch, and as traditionally as they can. She tells them to ditch the chips and soda, and instead to put the money toward fruits and vegetables in season.
Becker says eating healthy can help delay, control, or prevent diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, Latinos are almost twice as likely as whites to have diabetes.
Marta Vasquez saw her health suffer when she moved to the U.S. from Mexico. She gained 60 pounds in two years. Because of family genetics, Vasquez already had problems with hypertension.
"I started to gain weight because I wasn't exercising, I wasn't walking, nothing," Vasquez says. "I would eat hamburgers all the time because it was the easiest thing to do. It was fast. It was more practical to eat that when I was on the run. I don't do that anymore."
Eventually Vasquez developed diabetes. She went to La Clinica in St. Paul because she lost her health insurance. It's there that she learned she had the power to control her health.
Vasquez used to weigh more than 230 pounds. She's lost 50 pounds within the last year. And she's done it by eating healthy in smaller portions, cooking from scratch, and even dancing in her living room up to three hours a day.
As music plays at Vasquez' home, she moves around the room making up the steps as she goes.
"The doctor said to me, 'I want you here every month,'" Vasquez explains. "And every month, I'd be five pounds lighter, four pounds lighter. My sugar levels went down, and the doctor has even lowered my dosage."
Taking less diabetic medicine was a victory for Marta Vasquez. She's cooking all her family's meals from scratch now, and she reminds her children how to take care of their health.
La Clinica dietician Arlene Becker says immigrants can also reclaim their health by re-adopting some of the habits from their native countries. In many places, people shop for fresh food daily and cook with what they have on hand. Because of that, they tend to buy fruits and vegetables without preservatives and cook from scratch.
That's how Fabiola Cruz cooks at home when she's in Mexico. She's visiting her sister in Minneapolis. When she's here, she sees a big difference in the way she eats.
"Typically in Mexico and in many Latin American countries, if you're on the road or walking on the street, and you have a craving for fruit, you can stop almost anywhere and buy fruit," Cruz says. "And it's affordable too for people of all incomes. And here, I don't feel like it is. Really, fruits and vegetables are cheaper over there."
And what's cheap in the U.S.? Food that's high in fat, sodium, and sugar: hot dogs and chips, ramen noodles, and some brands of packaged food.
It's more than just being able to buy healthy food. It's about health care access. The CDC reports Latino immigrants are more likely to be uninsured than Americans or any other immigrant group. The study also found Latinos new to the U.S. are three times more likely to have never seen a doctor.
Talking to a doctor can make a world of difference, like it did for Marta Vasquez. That's how she learned to stay away from sugar, salt, and large portions. That's how she learned walking more could have kept her healthy.
Immigrants come to the U.S. for a better life. But often after years of living here, they find themselves facing the same health issues as low-income Americans.
- All Things Considered, 08/08/2006, 4:48 p.m.