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Pacific Islander American Diet

Origins

The Pacific Islands contain 789 habitable islands and are divided into the three geographic areas: Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are over a million Pacific Islanders in the United States, most of whom live in California, Hawaii, Washington, Utah, and Texas. Pacific Islander ethnicities in the United States include Carolinian, Fijian, Guamanian, Hawaiian, Kosraean, Melanesian, Micronesian, Northern Mariana Islander, Palauan, Papua New Guinean, Ponapean, Polynesian, Samoan, Solomon Islander, Tahitian, Tarawa Islander, Tongan, Trukese (Chuukese), and Yapese. Prior to 1980, Pacific Islander Americans (except Hawaiians) were classified with Asian Americans under the classification of ‘Asian and Pacific Islander American.’ Today, the U.S. Census Bureau includes Pacific Islander Americans under the classification of ‘Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander.’ Pacific Islanders are a racially and culturally diverse population group, and they follow a wide variety of religions and have an array of languages.

Eating Habits and Meal Patterns

The cuisine of Pacific Islander Americans varies slightly from culture to culture and is a blend of native foods and European, Japanese, American, and Asian influences. As with many cultures, food plays a central role in the culture. Pacific Islander Americans typically eat three meals a day. Breakfast is usually cereal and coffee; traditional meals are eaten for lunch or dinner; and fruits, fruit juices, vegetables, and nuts (e.g., peanuts and macadamia) are eaten in abundance. Milk and other dairy products are uncommon and there is a high prevalence of lactose intolerance among Pacific Islander Americans. Thus, calcium deficiency is prevalent.

Starchy foods are the foundation of the traditional diet. For example, the traditional Hawaiian diet is 75 to 80% starch, 7 to 12% fat, and 12 to 15% protein. Starch in the traditional diet comes primarily from root vegetables (e.g., taro, cassava, yam, green bananas, and breadfruit). In addition, the traditional diet is plentiful in fresh fruits, juices, nuts, and greens. Traditional meals include poi (boiled taro), breadfruit, green bananas, fish, or pork. Many dishes are cooked in coconut milk, and seaweed is often used as a vegetable or a condiment.

Nutritional Transition

Many Pacific Islander Americans now eat an Americanized diet consisting of fast foods and highly processed foodstuffs such as white flour, white sugar, canned meat and fish, butter, margarine, mayonnaise, carbonated beverages, candies, cookies, and sweetened breakfast cereals. Rice is now a staple food, having taken over yam and taro in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. This nutritional transition has resulted in an increase in cardiovascular disease (i.e., coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension), obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

Native Hawaiian and other U.S. Pacific Islander population, 2000

National originPopulationPercent
Total874,414100.0%
Polynesian  
Native Hawaiian401,16245.9
Samoan133,28115.2
Tongan36,8404.2
Tahitian3,3130.4
Tokelauan5740.1
Polynesian, not specified8,7961.0
Micronesian  
Guamanian or Chamorro92,61110.6
Mariana Islander141*
Saipanese4750.1
Palauan3,4690.4
Carolinian173*
Kosraean226*
Pohnpeian7000.1%
Chuukese6540.1
Yapese368*
Marshallese6,6500.8
I-Kiribati175*
Micronesian, not specified9,9401.1
Melanesian  
Fijian13,5811.6
Papua New Guinean224*
Solomon Islander25*
Ni-Vanuatu18*
Melanesian, not specified315*
Other Pacific Islander174,91220.0

*Less than 0.1%.

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000

(Illustration by GGS Information Services/Thomson Gale.)

interventions, however, and more health professionals need to be recruited from this population into health and medical fields in specific geographic areas. Professionals from the dominant (white) culture also need to become more culturally competent.

Nutrition and Health Status

Accurate mortality and morbidity statistics for this population are limited, mainly because data on Pacific Islander Americans were classified with Asian Americans until a few years ago. Pacific Islander Americans have a high rate of obesity, and Native Hawaiians and Samoans are among the most obese people in the world. Dietary and lifestyle changes, as well as a likely genetic predisposition to store fat, are possible causes for this high rate. Lifestyles have changed from an active farming- and fishing-based subsistence economy to a more sendentary lifestyle. Pacific Islanders may be genetically predisposed to store fat for times of scarcity (the ‘thrifty gene’ phe-notype), and there is evidence that prenatal undernutrition modifies fetal development, predisposing individuals to adult obesity and chronic diseases.

Besides obesity, Pacific Islander Americans have high rate of diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. Data collected from 1996 to 2000 suggest that Native Hawaiians are 2.5 times more likely to have diagnosed diabetes than white residents of Hawaii of similar age. Guam’s death rate from diabetes is five times higher than that of the U.S. mainland, and diabetes is one of the leading causes of death in American Samoa. Overall, Pacific Islander Americans have much lower rates of heart diseasethan other minority groups in the United States, but it is still the leading cause of death within this population. Risk factors for and mortality from heart disease are high partly because of higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. The poor health status of Pacific Islander Americans is also linked to socioeco-nomic indicators—Native Hawaiians have the worst socioeconomic indicators, the lowest health status, and the most diet-related maladies of all American minorities.

PERIODICALS

Galanis D. J.; McGarvey, S. T.; Quested, C.; Sio, B.; and Afele-Fa’amuli, S. A. (1999). ‘Dietary Intake of Modernizing Samoans: Implications for Risk of Cardiovascular Disease.’ Journal of the American Dietetic Association 99(2):184–90.

Kittler, P. G., and Sucher, K. P. (2001). Food and Culture, 3rd edition. Stamford, CT: Wadsworth.

Wang, C. Y.; Abbot, L.; Goodbody, A. K.; and Hui, W. T. (2002). ‘Ideal Body Image and Health Status in Low-Income Pacific Islanders.’ Journal of Cultural Diversity 9(1):12–22.

OTHER

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). ‘Diabetes in Asian and Pacific Islander Americans.’ Available from <http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/.

U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division. ‘The Status and Trends of the Nation’s Biological Resources: Hawaii and the Pacific Islands.’ Available from http://biology.usgs.gov/.

Ranjita Misra

Delores C. S. James


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