Epidemiological Paradox or Immigrant Vulnerability?

Obesity Among Young Children of Immigrants

Published in: Demography, v. 52, no. 4, Aug. 2015, p. 1295-1320

Posted on RAND.org on September 22, 2016

by Elizabeth Baker, Michael S. Rendall, Margaret Weden

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According to the "immigrant epidemiological paradox," immigrants and their children enjoy health advantages over their U.S.-born peers--advantages that diminish with greater acculturation. We investigated child obesity as a potentially significant deviation from this paradox for second-generation immigrant children. We evaluated two alternate measures of mother's acculturation: age at arrival in the United States and English language proficiency. To obtain sufficient numbers of second-generation immigrant children, we pooled samples across two related, nationally representative surveys. Each included measured (not parent-reported) height and weight of kindergartners. We also estimated models that alternately included and excluded mother's pre-pregnancy weight status as a predictor. Our findings are opposite to those predicted by the immigrant epidemiological paradox: children of U.S.-born mothers were less likely to be obese than otherwise similar children of foreign-born mothers; and the children of the least-acculturated immigrant mothers, as measured by low English language proficiency, were the most likely to be obese. Foreign-born mothers had lower (healthier) pre-pregnancy weight than U.S.-born mothers, and this was protective against their second-generation children's obesity. This protection, however, was not sufficiently strong to outweigh factors associated or correlated with the mothers' linguistic isolation and marginal status as immigrants.

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