Eating American: The Fat Cost of Fitting In?


Recently the President released his long-form birth certificate to show everyone, perhaps especially those birthers gone berserk, that he’s an American born in America who belongs in the White House. On a day-to-day basis, desis in the U.S. are not being asked to pull out their long-forms (not yet anyway), but are there other ways in which we’re made to feel that we have to prove we belong, that we’re American? New research from psychologists seems to address this question with a particular focus on the food choices of immigrant groups–“Fitting In but Getting Fat: Identity Threat and Dietary Choices among U.S. Immigrant Groups.”

Psychologists show that it’s not simply the abundance of high-calorie American junk food that causes weight gain. Instead, members of U.S. immigrant groups choose typical American dishes as a way to show that they belong and to prove their American-ness.

“People who feel like they need to prove they belong in a culture will change their habits in an attempt to fit in,” said Sapna Cheryan, corresponding author and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington. “If immigrants and their children choose unhealthy American foods over healthier traditional foods across their lives, this process of fitting in could lead to poorer health,” she said.

The results are published in the June issue of Psychological Science.

Public health studies show that diets of immigrants, including those from Asia, Africa and Central and South America worsen the longer they stay in the United States. (press release)

Surveying Asian-American and white college students to learn more about their embarrassing food memories, the researchers found 68% of Asian-American respondents recalled food-related insecurities around white peers while growing up, compared to only 27% of white respondents. Examples included awkwardness about using chopsticks, eating animal parts like fish eyes, chicken feet, etc.

The research aimed to measure whether the threat of not being identified as American had an effect on food preferences by asking the students “Do you speak English?” before starting the experiment. 

Because the sampled American dishes tended to be fattier, threatened participants ended up consuming an extra 182 calories, 12 grams of fat and seven grams of saturated fat – roughly equivalent to a four-piece order of McDonald’s chicken nuggets – than participants who were not asked if they were American.

I wonder which of my food preferences developed while I was growing up might be related to trying to fit in or “be American.” My mom remembers me being introduced to American-style food when I was in preschool and says that I asked at home for foods like “fruit cop-tail” after eating them there. I remember bugging our parents at the grocery store for things like Kraft’s mac & cheese in a box, which is its own kind of embarrassing food memory now that I know more about how it stacks up nutritionally against their homecooked desi meals. 

I couldn’t identify with the study’s listed examples (chopsticks/fish eyes) of embarrassing food memories around peers, though I have my own memories of inventing fake dinners to report back to our second grade class. Our teacher was kind of a fanatic about the now-outdated concept of four food groups, inspecting our lunches in the cafeteria to see if they conformed and having us list what we had for dinner too. The fake dinners I reported eating were ones I spotted in coupon flyers or in TV ads, and they were easier to describe in English and conveniently much more like everyone else’s dinners than the veggies and pulses my mom served with rice. (I’m not sure I knew the word okra or pulse then, and I definitely didn’t know yet that kakarakaya=bitter gourd).   

Here’s the paper if you are interested in examining the research in more detail. If you are interested in how cultural stereotypes affect people’s actions and choices, then you may want to follow the work of Sapna Cheryan, which also includes research on why women are underrepresented in computer science and how that might be changed:

(Image via Flickr: calculat0r)

72 thoughts on “Eating American: The Fat Cost of Fitting In?

  1. boston_mahesh, thank you, that was my exact point ie.

    nutritionally equivalent macronutrients != nutritionally equivalent micronutrients

    you can get 5 spoons of sugar from either a bottle of sugar or a bunch of carrots.

    to get it from the bottle, you put a spoon, take out the sugar and eat it. do this 5 times. it will take you 2 minutes.

    to get it from the carrots, you may have to eat more than 2 kilograms of carrots, which no human being can do in a single sitting or even a whole day.

    but both give you same 5 spoon sugar ie. nutritionally, they have same amount of carbs. but the latter has 1000 times more fiber, so it fills you up a lot faster.

    when people say crap like “you can get protein from vegetarian indian food, just eat soyabean.”, they are commiting the same fallacy. to get the same amount of protein that 1lb lean chicken has, you’ll have to eat say 2 kilograms of soyabean. all that estrogen will get you manboobs, not protein.

    density matters. that is why nutrition is so damn hard.

  2. as a doctor and a nutritionist i beg to thoroughly disagree.

    All that schooling and nobody thought you how to capitalize properly? Frankly, I call shenanigans on your claim to authority and think your position that eating anything in moderation if you have a diverse diet is, somehow, not healthy is straight up farcical.

    And the notion that 6 samples that are chemically identical will somehow have a different impact on people based on the label you give them (canola oil vs. olive oil) is about as scientifically sound as homeopathy. I have no idea what kind of studies this thought experiment is even based on or what it even has to do with normal human diets (which are diverse.)

    For one thing, any studies analyzing diet or exercise have serious validity issues that mean you need to be careful making definitive claims about anything that comes out. Human bodies are diverse and complicated. The population curve is extremely wide and every single person reacts slightly differently to every single variable involved. That’s a highly complex thing you’re trying to model, which is part of the reason pharmaceutical trials are some of the most shoddy quantitative work any statistician will ever see. So remain skeptical about appealing to one or two clinical trials as the be-all-end-all of nutritional science. Especially when you’re making counterintuitive claims. They still can’t conclusively determine that exercise leads to weight-loss for God’s sake.