First-Class Nutrition on an Immigrant Diet

First-Generation Mexican Women Are Better Nourished Than White, Middle-Class Counterparts

by Patricia McBroom

Mexican-born immigrant women are better nourished than the average American woman, probably because their traditional meals contain more beans, meats and vegetables, according to a Berkeley public health study released in January.

The study is the first to show that, despite poverty and a lack of education, first-generation Mexican-Americans have better diets than women of Mexican origin born in the U.S. or non-Hispanic whites. Also, contrary to stereotype, the traditional Mexican diet does not contain more fat.

It is not known whether Mexican restaurants in the United States would confer the same advantages as traditional home-cooked food, according to Sylvia Guendelman, assistant professor in the School of Public Health, who headed the research. Associate Professor Barbara Abrams, also in public health at Berkeley, was the co-author.

"These results call upon us to examine very carefully the diet of Mexican women, not only what they eat, but how they prepare it," said Guendelman.

"Rather than assuming that Mexican food is 'no good,' we should recognize that these people can teach us something when it comes to diet," she said.

Mexican-born immigrants also use less nicotine, alcohol and caffeine than do white, non-Hispanic women, said Guendelman.

The authors believe these dietary habits may be having a direct impact on the health of newborn infants.

It has long been known that recent Mexican-American immigrants have healthier births, including a lower infant mortality rate and fewer underweight infants, than do other low-income minority populations in the United States, including Mexican-Americans who have been here for a generation.

"This has always been a paradox," said Guen-del-man. "Here we have wo-men who are very poor, with very little formal education or health insurance, and delayed access to medical services. Yet their babies are as healthy as middle- class whites. How come?"

"We believe that nutrition is playing a protective role," she said.

There were 3,600 women involved in the research, which was based on two national dietary surveys conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics in the late '70s and early '80s. (Dietary data from the Hispanic survey was not released until 1993.) Of the 3,600 women, 1,373 were first- and second-generation Mexican-American, while 2,326 were non-Hispanic white women--all of child-bearing age.

Recalling what they had eaten in the 24 hours before their interviews, these women described diets that varied significantly in vitamin and protein content.

First-generation Mexican-Americans were eating foods with far more protein, vitamins A and C, folic acid and calcium. In fact, they had better nutrition for all the nutrients except iron, said Guendelman. The diets did not differ, however, in the amount of fats consumed.

Although there was no direct study of the foods themselves, Guen-delman believes the better nutrition may have been due to such traditional staples as tacos, enchiladas, and chicken or beef soups--recipes that combine meat and vegetables in one dish.

But as the women became acculturated, their diets slipped badly, perhaps because they began eating junk food. Their drinking and smoking habits also changed for the worse.

U.S.-born Mexican-Americans had the least adequate food in terms of vitamin A and calcium, while in other nutrients they were similar to non-Hispanic whites.

Guendelman pointed out that 42 percent of the 620,000 births per year in California are of Latino origin. "What happens to this group has strong implications for the entire state," said Guendelman.

"If you are Mexican-American, you might want to get the secrets of cooking from your grandmother."


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
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