By Martha Garcia, Saludify
Acculturation, or adapting to the culture of the society you live in (including diet, lifestyle habits, language), is often at the heart of criticism for many Latinos. Stay true to tradition or adapt to life in the U.S., is a common Latino dilemma. But, what is the difference between acculturated and non-acculturated Latinos when it comes to health?
While many people assume all Hispanics living in the U.S. do not live as long as other ethnic groups due to health care gaps and high rates of chronic diseases, the Hispanic Paradox reveals a different picture.
Recent census information backs up the research.
Overall, Hispanics live 2 years longer than non-Hispanic Whites and an average of 8 years longer than African Americans. They also have a lower rate of infant mortality than other ethnic groups. Shocking statistics if you consider that Hispanics in the country have the highest uninsured health rates of any ethnic group, a rate that increases to nearly 50 percent if the person was not born in the United States.
Research, however, has found that while Hispanics in the U.S. live longer than non-Hispanics, non-acculturated Latinos live longer and healthier lives than acculturated or U.S. born Hispanics. In fact, acculturated Hispanics have higher rates of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer.
What is it about the acculturation process that takes a toll on our health? While there may not be a definitive answer yet, a look into our rich Latino traditions and culture can certainly offer some clues.
Acculturation: Losing family traditions?
A major component of Latino life is the focus on family and community. Familismo, is an increased value of immediate and extended family members beyond mom, dad and grandparents. This can include aunts, uncles, compadresand other close knit community members.
Family support can indeed help individuals cope with daily stress.
A “strong sense of community and close family ties” can lead to better health, according to David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the University of California, Los Angeles.
A very important part of Latinos coming together is the food, of course. Latinos’ family and friends reunions are usually about homemade meals. Non-acculturated Latinos might be more prone to still come together for family time, prepare food from scratch, using natural and fresh ingredients from their own garden or a nearby market.
An important aspect of these family dinners is the social bond it offers the family. A Canadian based study found frequent family dinners was associated with an increased rate of emotional well-being, pro-social behavior and life satisfaction among adolescents.
The findings offer a clue into the positive effects frequent family dinners can provide to the entire family. Offering family members a strong outlet for increased communication, which can lead to increased mental and physical health and may be a key role in Latino longevity.
It is also about what non-acculturated Latinos eat. The recent juice cleanse craze has proven to be a healthy dietary addition in the U.S., but Latinos have long known the benefits of consuming fresh fruit and vegetable juices.
A tradition long honored by Hispanics, juices and licuados are as much a part of Latino culture as tacos and burritos for Mexicans. All infused with items, like fresh orange juice, celery, mango, spinach, nopal, cinnamon and other natural ingredients, non-acculturated Hispanics are more likely to prepare these juices instead of buying them already prepared from the grocery store. Acculturation usually implies adopting the rhythm of the American life, which in turn may lead to less time to prepare meals, and more access to and acceptance of fast food options.
True, Hispanic food often includes unhealthy aspects, like fried food or items heavy in fat. However, traditional Hispanic cultures opt for home cooked meals made from scratch with fresh ingredients, which is always a much healthier alternative to packaged food with added preservatives.
The non-acculturated Latino household will opt for ingredients which are completely fresh, shying away from canned and packaged goods which may contain added sugar and chemicals. In fact, according to a recent survey, 52 percent of non-acculturated Latinos prepare fresh home cooked meals more often than acculturated Latinos.
Acculturation might also lead to more access to English-language marketing campaigns and television shows promoting fast food and related lifestyle habits.
Acculturation and access to health care
When Americans get sick they often turn to the doctor for help. Many traditional Hispanic cultures dictate that when someone gets sick, you turn to the family for home remedies first. Research indicates nearly six out of 10 Latinos will try home remedies first, as a cure for illness.
Every Hispanic culture has a rich history of using plant remedies and foods administered by abuelas andcuranderas as prescriptions for sickness. Latinos often turned to the yerba buena for stomach aches or oregano oil for earaches. Even the nopal, leaf of the cactus, is known to help lower blood sugar and fight cholesterol.
Studies reveal non-acculturated Hispanics turn to home remedies 80 percent of the time as opposed to acculturated Hispanics, who seek herbal remedies only 50 percent of the time. Acculturation might involve a tendency to rely more on prescription and over the counter medications, which often cause side effects.
Could this be the key to Hispanic longevity? While the practice is culturally approved, it is also a favorite among Latinos because of the cost difference. In a country where Latinos have the highest uninsured health rates of any racial or ethnic group, opting for low cost alternatives proves to be practical economically for many Latinos, not just culturally.
However, relying on natural remedies for more serious illness can also prove detrimental to Latinos, who often crowd the hospital’s emergency rooms when their condition worsens.
Acculturation and physical activity levels
Regular physical activity has been proved to improve an individual’s overall health and reduce the risk for chronic diseases.
When it comes to Latinos, levels of physical activity vary greatly among acculturated and non-acculturated individuals. There is also conflicting information about this issue.
While, non-acculturated Latino parents might be more likely to promote outdoor play time among their children and be more active themselves, especially if their financial situation is not strong, they often run into obstacles to be active.
According to a review, many low-income Latinos, find themselves with multiple role responsibilities that leave little time for leisure and physical activity. Many of them also perceive their own neighborhoods as not safe, which keeps them from activities such as walking and going to the park.
However, non-acculturated Hispanics are more likely to be found working in jobs that require strenuous physical activity such as construction, gardening, and cleaning. Acculturated Latinos, on the other hand, are more likely to be found in desk jobs that promote a more sedentary life.
All in all, the process of acculturation might take a toll on someone’s health – by leading a more stressful life, adopting the so-called American diet, reducing levels of physical activity, and distancing oneself from cultural traditions that may be physically, mentally and emotionally healthier, something to keep in mind, especially for those Latinos raising children in the U.S.
This article was first published in Saludify.
Martha Garcia is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She writes for various magazines, newspapers & websites. Martha is the Faith editor for the Signal newspaper. She loves to travel, learn about new things and continues her pursuit of healthier living.
[Photo by Daquella manera]