A link between acculturation and BMI in Latino adolescents, study finds

Chef Alex Moreno adds mozzarella cheese to corn tortillas to make birria tacos for the crowd at Milpa. Photo by Jimmy Romo.

As Latino youth blend into American culture, they are at more risk of having a high body mass index (BMI), leading to health risks. A study in Southern California led by UNLV Assistant Professor Christopher Johansen investigated possible causes for the connection between acculturation and high BMI in Latino youth. 

“Acculturation is the process of cultural, dietary and psychological change that takes place as a result of two or more culture groups and their individual members,” Johansen said. “When we refer to acculturation here in this paper and typically in the United States, we are referring to assimilation…My research looks at the role of acculturation on various health outcomes.” 

The study surveyed over 400 Latin American high school students from 63 high schools. They tested four possible mediators for the connection between acculturation and BMI. They reviewed physical activity, sedentary behavior, consumption of three types of salty snacks and consumption of eighteen types of sweet snacks.

After all of the surveying, the only reliable positive association was between physical activity and acculturation. This result meant that more acculturated adolescents participated in a higher level of physical activity according to the survey. 

While this result did further previous research on acculturation, the question still remains: What is causing this link between acculturation and BMI?

Johansen and UNLV’s Director of the Didactic Program in Nutrition and Dietetics, Samantha Coogan, have some ideas. 

“I’ve seen in Las Vegas the way that Latino culture has changed across the city, there’s so much more U.S. influence on the culture,” Coogan said. “So even in their own cultural food practices, there’s a lot more adoption of American practices… Even in places like Italy, in Europe, all of those places have assimilated so much to the U.S. because of how convenient it is to make things taste better, to get more calories in or get more bang for your buck.”

Coogan described the convenience and lower prices of more American ingredients in ethnic foods as a possible mediator. Johansen is also interested in the subject. He is currently coordinating with colleagues at University of California, Los Angeles, to investigate highly processed foods and their impact on public health. They reportedly are also hoping to get Latinos to revert back to cooking practices without the processed American ingredients. 

Another possible cause explored by both Johansen and Coogan is parental influence. Johansen described how the unintended influence of unhealthy habits often transfers directly to their child. “As a parent of a young toddler myself, I am re-thinking about all my different behaviors,” Johansen said. “So I can pass on to him, you know all the good behaviors.”

Coogan explained how educating children at the lowest level about the importance of genuine ethnic ingredients and foods can lead to it translating to the parents. Her lifecycle nutrition class works with children and parents to educate the children about foods in a manner that won’t offend the parents when their child brings what they learned home with them. 

“We’re really just kind of reframing the way we teach them so they speak a little more appropriately to their parents when they get back home because we don’t want to create divides between parents and children,” Coogan said.

Johansen and Coogan believe education is how to improve the health of Latinos. Coogan also hit on the importance of people being made aware of ethnic supermarkets. She stressed these sources of genuine ethnic ingredients over American supermarket products. Johansen stressed educating people on the differences in how food is prepared, such as fried foods.

Johansen plans on looking into the different mediators for a study in adolescents and plans on expanding his research to young Latino children.


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