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Weight Gain Sets in 10 Years After Moving to U.S.

Dec.14, 2004 -- After 10 years in the U.S., immigrants start to gain weight, according to a new study.

While immigrants are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, little is known about weight gain among them. Immigrants typically come from countries where obesity is not the norm. But what happens after they emigrate to the land of fast food and traffic? Do they get any lifestyle counseling on diet and physical activity?

After all, "immigrants face more barriers to health care and are less likely to receive preventive health care than persons born in the United States," writes lead researcher Mita Sanghavi Goel, MD, MPH, a professor of internal medicine with Northwestern University in Chicago.

Her report on immigrant weight gain appears in the latest issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Weight Gain Among Immigrants

It is based on a U.S. Census Bureau survey, which involved in-home interviews of 32,275 adults, including 14% foreign-born adults. It shows:

  • Compared with U.S.-born people, foreign-born adults had lower annual household income and education, fewer illnesses, and less access to health care.
  • Foreign-born adults were less likely to be overweight or obese than U.S.-born adults. However, they were often more sedentary than U.S.-born people -- a primary risk factor for weight gain.
  • 8% of foreign-born survey respondents living within the U.S. were obese
  • However for those living in the U.S. for at least15 years: 41% were at normal weight, 38% were overweight, and 19% were obese. Among U.S.-born adults, 41% were normal weight, 35% were overweight, and 22% were obese.
  • Fewer foreign-born adults -- 18% -- got weight gain-related dietary advice from a doctor, compared with 24% of U.S.-born adults.
  • 19% of foreign-born adults discussed exercise and weight gain with a doctor, compared with 23% of U.S.-born adults.

Ten years seems to be the threshold level -- the time when weight gain sets in, writes Goel. At that point, immigrants' weight problems are all too similar to the American profile. They're starting to become overweight and obese. Because they have less access to health care, immigrants don't get the counseling they need to avoid weight gain.

Diet and exercise counseling must take place during immigrants' early years in this country, she adds.

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