Immigrating to Obesity

Immigrating to Obesity

THE SOURCE: “Immigration and the American Obesity Epidemic” by Lingxin Hao and Julie J. H. Kim, in International Migration Review, Summer 2009.

Read Time:
1m 33sec

Immigration and the incidence of obesity in the United States both started increasing around 1965, but don’t blame newcomers for the nation’s bulging bellies. Without mass immigration, America’s obesity crisis would be even worse.

The average immigrant is slimmer than the average native-born American and stays that way for some 10 years after coming to the United States, report Lingxin Hao, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, and Julie J. H. Kim, a Hopkins Ph.D. candidate. Part of the explanation is self-selection. Migrating from one country to another (even under good conditions) tests even the fittest, and those who take the risk tend to be in good health. And if immigrants get sick, they exhibit what sociologists call the “salmon-bias effect”—they head for home. Moreover, the exercise and nutrition patterns of immigrants stay in place for a few years after they emigrate, giving them an “immigrant advantage” before they embrace America’s fast-food lifestyle.

The typical native-born American male, 5’8” tall, weighs 187 pounds. This makes him officially seriously overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A man of that height should weigh 170 pounds, at most. His immigrant counterpart weighs, on average, 175 pounds. An immigrant women of average stature (5’4”) is also about 12 pounds lighter than a corresponding native-born woman. Roughly 30 percent of Americans are obese, which is defined as weighing more than 205 pounds for men of typical height, and 180 for similar women. One’s body mass index, the formal measurement of healthy weight, tends to increase until age 60, then level off.

America would be better off if newcomers were innoculated against the national penchant for gobbling fries and shakes in front of the television. A shrewd public-health policy, Hao and Kim conclude, would aim to delay the erosion of the immigrant advantage.

More From This Issue