National Public Radio this morning reported McDonald's is ramping up its marketing efforts in Asian-American communities, but a new study suggests immigrants and their children don't need much prodding to eat burgers and fries.
A new study suggests this could be the cost of bigotry.
Research has shown immigrants are prone to gain weight after relocating to the U.S., and their children are as susceptible to obesity as children of American-born parents. While popular explanations for the phenomenon have centered on the affordability and ubiquity of high-fat, high-calorie foods, University of Washington professor Sapna Cheryan set out to discover whether immigrants had other motives for favoring "American" foods such as burgers, hot dogs and pizza.
"There are a lot of reasons people get fat when they stay in the U.S.," Cheryan says. "But we were very interested in the psychological reasons."
Cheryan and her co-author Maya Guendelman, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, found Asian-Americans are more likely to eat unhealthy foods when they feel compelled to prove their American identities.
The researchers conducted two experiments to test their hypothesis. In the first experiment, Anglo-American and Asian-American college students were first asked if they spoke English, and then asked to name their favorite food. Asian-Americans whose language skills were questioned were three times as likely to choose an American food than their "non-threatened" Asian-American counterparts.
"For the white participants, it didn't make a difference," Cheryan reports. "They didn't have a need to prove their identity."
To demonstrate the habit could have serious health consequences, the researchers then conducted an experiment in which students were prompted to order and eat a favorite food. Students were presented with fake restaurant websites listing dishes including chicken tenders, fish and chips, Philly cheese steak, beef yakisoba, Thai curry, banh mi, and bibimbap.
Again, Asian-American students who were reminded before the session that they "had to be American to participate" were far more likely to order off the menu inspired by the Johnny Rockets restaurant chain.
The "threatened" students were no more likely to order unhealthy Asian dishes, dispelling the hypothesis that they were seeking comfort in fat and salt.
"Trading a traditional diet for a prototypical American diet may thus provide a way, albeit a potentially harmful one, to prove one's American identity to those who might doubt it," the researchers write. "Asian Americans who had their American identities threatened consumed dishes with the caloric and fat equivalent of an extra 4-piece order of McDonald's Chicken McNuggets."
Cheryan suspects the findings may be applicable to other ethnic groups.
"Dietary decline is consistent across immigrant populations, so we think it could be the case," she says.
As Cheryan points out, many of the dishes classified as American were considered foreign as recently as 50 years ago. Pizza was an Italian delicacy well into the 1960s. Cheryan would now like to see Americans make room in the mainstream for healthy Asian dishes, such as sushi.
"Our main recommendation is that if we can change who is considered American and what is considered American food, people will feel less pressure to prove their identities," she says.
The study is scheduled to be published in next month's issue of Psychological Science.