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The United States Census Bureau defines His-panics as those who indicate their origin to be Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American (e.g., Dominican, Nicaraguan, Colombian) or other Hispanic origin. This designation is made independently of racial classification. According to the 2002 U.S. Census, 13.3% of the U.S. population (or over 37 million Americans) identified themselves as being of Hispanic origin. This number exceeds the number of non-Hispanic blacks, or African Americans, in the United States, making Hispanics the largest minority subpopulation within the nation. The three major subgroups that make up the Hispanic population are Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans. By far the largest of these is the Mexican-American population, which represents at least twothirds of all Hispanics.
Characteristics of the Hispanic diet
The contemporary diet of Hispanics in the United States is heavily influenced by the traditional dietary patterns of their countries of origin, as well as by the dietary practices of the adopted communities in which they live. As such, there are many regional differences between Hispanic subgroups, both in terms of the composition of the diet and the means of food preparation. Despite the heterogeneous ancestral backgrounds of Hispanic Americans, many Hispanics still retain core elements of the traditional Hispanic diet, including a reliance on grains and beans and the incorporation of fresh fruits and vegetables in the diet. Family life has traditionally occupied a central place in Hispanic culture, and this has influenced dietary behaviors through home preparation of meals and the practice of families eating together.
Information about what Hispanics in the United States eat has been compiled through national surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Among the highlights of these data are that Hispanics tend to eat more rice, but less pasta and ready-to-eat cereals, than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. With the exception of tomatoes, Hispanics are also less likely to consume vegetables, although they have a slightly higher consumption of fruits. Compared to non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics are more than twice as likely to drink whole milk, but much less likely to drink low-fat or skim milk. His-panics are also more likely to eat beef, but less likely to
eat processed meats such as hot dogs, sausage, and luncheon meats. Hispanics are more likely to eat eggs and legumes than non-Hispanic whites, and less likely to consume fats and oils or sugars and candy.
Analysis of the macronutrient content of the diet reveals that Hispanics, especially Mexican Americans, have a lower intake of total fat and a higher intake of dietary fiber compared to non-Hispanic white populations, with much of the dietary fiber coming from legumes. In general, Mexican Americans and other Hispanic subgroups are low in many of the same micronutrients as the general population, with intakes of vitamin E, calcium, and zinc falling below Recommended Daily Allowances.
Acculturation and the Hispanic Diet
Just as Hispanics have altered American cuisine, American culture has also altered the diet of Hispanic Americans. As with many other immigrant groups in the United States, the lifestyle of Hispanic Americans is undergoing a transition away from one based on the traditional values and customs of their ancestry, as they begin to adopt the values and behaviors of their adopted country. With regard to health behaviors, this process of acculturation is typically characterized by a more sedentary lifestyle and a change in dietary patterns. The effects of acculturation on the Hispanic diet are illustrated in national dietary survey data that show that Hispanic Americans who continue to use Spanish as a primary language eat somewhat more healthful diets than those who use English as a primary language. These healthier eating behaviors include lower consumption of fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Additional analysis of these survey data reveals that these dietary differences do not appear to be the result of greater nutritional knowledge or greater awareness of food-disease relationships.
The degradation of diet quality that occurs as Hispanic Americans become acculturated into the mainstream U.S. population occurs in the context of improvements in, rather than degradation of, economic status. For example, first-generation Mexican-American women, despite being of lower socioeconomic status than second-generation Mexican American or non-Hispanic white women, tend to have higher intakes of protein,vitamins A and C, folic acid, and calcium than these other groups. The diets of second-generation Mexican American women more closely resemble those of non-Hispanic white women of similar socioeco-nomic status.
The process of acculturation and the changing nature of the Hispanic diet has serious implications for the state of Hispanic health. The prevalence of type 2 diabetes mellitus is two to three times higher in Hispanic Americans than in non-Hispanic whites, with an estimated 10% of adults over the age of twenty and 25 to 30% of those over the age of fifty affected. The prevalence of the disease is especially high among Mexican Americans. Diabetes, a disease characterized by high levels of glucose in the blood, is a major cause of death and disability in the United States. Compared to non-diabetic individuals, those with the disease are also at two to four times higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the country. Accompanying this increased risk of diabetes among Hispanics is a marked increase in the risk of obesity.
Much of the increased risk of diabetes experienced by Hispanic Americans is believed to be attributable to the changing lifestyle that accompanies the acculturation process, including the changing quality of the Hispanic diet and the adoption of a more sedentary lifestyle. These trends are occurring across all segments of the Hispanic population, although the extent of the changes are more pronounced in some subgroups (e.g., Mexican Americans in large urban areas) than in others. Although Hispanic Americans generally smoke less than their non-Hispanic white counterparts, the direction of Hispanic health is also threatened by an increasing frequency of cigarette smoking, particularly among younger segments of the population.
Approaches for improving the health of Hispanics need to be broad-based and to consider the complexities of a variety of lifestyle factors. Nutrition education programs aimed at improving the quality of the Hispanic diet are currently based on a combination of preserving some elements of the traditional Hispanic diet—including a reliance on beans, rice, and tortil las—and a change in others—such as reduced consumption of high-fat dairy products and less use of fat in cooking.
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