Junk food seizes newcomers

By Christine Kim

Having immigrated to the United States from South Korea at the age of 17, Bryan Kim, now of Champaign, stepped out of the airplane into a different culture, different education, different lifestyle and different diet.

Upon arrival, sweets, greasy and fried foods provided Kim with a variety of unhealthy foods, complemented with automotive transportation as an everyday must. Walking became a last option and greens and vegetables were overrun by fast food. Over a span of almost seven years, Kim gained a total of 50 pounds, mostly accredited to a change in diet.

“There was no change in my eating habits,” he said. “I still ate three meals a day … but American food is greasier and there is not enough time to exercise. In Korea you walk, but here, everything is by car.”

In high school, cafeteria food did not provide Kim with a variety of choices, so he ate at fast food restaurants like Taco Bell and McDonald’s. Kim, now 23-years-old, attends Parkland College. He had no time to cook for himself freshman year in college and he consumed more American and junk food. However, during his sophomore year, he lived in an apartment with other Korean roommates and cooked mostly Korean food for his meals.

“I lost weight in college once I started cooking,” he said. “I could feel the difference.”

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Similarly, in a study on dietary assimilation and immigrant health, visiting Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology Ilana Redstone Akresh examined immigrants’ dietary assimilation.

Using the New Immigrant Survey, which sampled immigrants in the period from May to November 2003, Akresh looked at how immigrants evaluated the extent of change in their diets. She found that the more a person changes their diet, the higher the body mass index. The index is a classification of individuals as underweight, normal, overweight and obese, taking height and weight into consideration.

The survey used cross-sectional data rather than longitudinal data and is a synthetic process looking at people who have been in the U.S. for different lengths of time. The survey included a portion that allowed immigrants to rank how different their diet was and supply specific information on what types of changes were made. The data showed that Americans’ large consumption of meat and junk food may be attributed to the weight gain and the increase in body mass index.

Marriage to a U.S.-born spouse, speaking English with friends, and the time spent in the U.S., are important measures of acculturation that affect the change in diets, Akresh said.

“When individuals immigrate to any country, both environmental and lifestyle changes occur,” said Katrina Sprengelmeyer, nutrition education graduate assistant at McKinley Health Center and graduate student in the Nutritional Sciences department.

“The results of a study showed that on average immigrants had lower (body mass indexes) than the average U.S.-born adult upon entering the U.S. However, the longer an immigrant stayed in the U.S. the more their (body mass index) increased.”

Akresh started the research on immigration health last fall and found two primary ways that people could change their diets. They could either eat more processed foods and junk food that are abundant in the U.S., leading them to bad health, or they could choose to eat a variety of imported fruits and vegetables.

“I think the biggest thing is (the location),” Akresh said. “In Champaign, you have different choices than what you have in Brooklyn … that’s another project that is underway … all of the things that you think may make a difference, I’m going to be unwrapping some of that.”

Akresh is in the process of writing a grant to take individual files from the project and link them with census track data. This will allow her to research people living in ethnically concentrated areas.

“In order to provide a solution, you need to understand why people are making the changes they are making,” Akresh said.

“If it’s the case that it’s a lack of information … then nutritional education could certainly be important.”

Concentrating on different variables may yield different results.

“(This study) is unique because of what you look at,” Akresh said. “I haven’t yet looked at the residential component, but I think it’s a big first step–that’s where I’m moving towards.”