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American Diet: Prof Looks at the Eating Habits of Immigrants and Children

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Molly Dondero is researching how Mexican immigrants' children are influenced by the U.S. food environment.

It’s a narrative almost hardwired into our country’s DNA. “Immigrants come to the United States seeking a better life,” people often say. But what if becoming an American is actually bad for your health? That’s a question American University Assistant Professor Molly Dondero and her colleagues are probing in their latest research project.

With support from the National Institutes of Health, Dondero is working with fellow researchers from Pennsylvania State University—where Dondero did her post-doc—to study the obesity and diet patterns of children of Mexican immigrants. They’ve already published research on this subject, and they’re eventually planning to incorporate their work into a book.

Their research findings, both counterintuitive and revealing, could give us a greater understanding of American health and immigration

“Children of Mexican immigrants are among the fastest-growing segments of the youth population in the U.S. So, their health matters for the long-term vitality of our country,” says Dondero, a sociology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. “And this really has implications for the U.S. population in general. It can start to unpack what it is about the U.S. food environment, or the U.S. health environment, that can affect people’s health in negative ways.”

Generational Divide

This research is driven by a surprising disconnect. Mexican immigrant adults tend to be healthy, and they bring positive dietary practices with them to the United States. Their children, however, are eating a much less healthy diet.

Dondero is trying to uncover why good eating habits are not passed onto the next generation. The first thought might be that, like other American children, they live in communities inundated with Big Macs, Whoppers, and sugary beverages.

“The U.S. does not have the best reputation for its healthy food environments. In general, it’s a pretty obesogenic environment with lots of processed foods and fast foods,” Dondero says. But she’s discovering a phenomenon that’s a bit more complex, with kids adopting eating habits in a variety of venues and settings.

“Children of immigrants, like any children in the U.S., are embedded in multiple types of environments. So they’re in their homes, they’re in their schools with peers, they’re in neighborhoods. They’re getting exposed to different types of food environments, and different social norms surrounding food,” she explains.

Peer Pressure and Assimilation

Dondero cautions against attributing obesity prevalence to behavioral decisions, and she notes the societal and peer pressures children may face.

Assimilation, or a desire to assert American identity, might have an impact on food intake. Dondero says that when Mexican immigrants’ children live in neighborhoods that have higher concentrations of fellow immigrants, they’re more likely to eat as healthily as their mothers do.

“That suggests that there might be some social pressures when they’re outside of those types of neighborhoods to consume less healthy diets,” she says. “When looking at schools, homes, restaurants, and other types of settings, children tend to eat the most Americanized and least healthy meals in places outside the home. That, again, points to maybe a pressure to fit in socially.”

Non-immigrant parents are also often frustrated by their kids’ exposure to junk food. But Dondero says, “There seem to be particular challenges that are unique to Mexican immigrant mothers, because they might be wanting to uphold their own culinary traditions.”

Dondero and her colleagues are conducting their research in two stages. They’re utilizing large-scale national surveys, and they’re also conducting interviews with Mexican immigrant mothers in Texas.

Frameworks and Borders

Dondero joined the AU faculty in 2016 and she’s currently teaching a course called “Power, Privilege, and Inequality.” A Spanish major during her undergraduate years, she initially hoped to be a journalist focused on U.S.-Latin American relations. Yet realizing how complicated some of these issues were, she went to graduate school for social science courses and a conceptual framework. She earned her master’s degree in Latin American studies and later her doctorate in sociology.

Especially as it relates to health and well-being, she found immigration a fascinating subject for further study. “I think it’s such a useful way to understand the world, seeing how people’s lives change when they’re coming across borders.”