Questioning the Dietary Acculturation Paradox: A Mixed-Methods Study of the Relationship between Food and Ethnic Identity in a Group of Mexican-American Women

Published:December 28, 2017DOI:



      Epidemiological studies have described an “acculturation paradox.” Increased acculturation to the United States is associated with increased consumption of dietary fat and decreased consumption of fruits/vegetables.


      To expand understanding of the dietary acculturation paradox, this study examined how bicultural Mexican-American women construct ethnic identity and how these identities and identity-making processes relate to perceptions of health and nutrition.


      We utilized embedded mixed methods (in-depth interviews; survey).


      We analyzed a purposive sample of English-speaking Mexican-American women aged 18 to 29 years (n=24) in rural California to assess ethnic identity and diet beliefs.


      Participants described food as central to expressing cultural identity, usually in terms of family interactions. Mexican food traditions were characterized as unhealthy; many preferred American foods, which were seen as healthier. Specifically, Mexican-American women perceived Mexican patterns of food preparation and consumption as unhealthy. In addition, traditional Mexican foods described as unhealthy were once considered special-occasion foods. Among the participants who expressed a desire to eat healthfully, to do so meant to reject Mexican ways of eating.


      This study raises questions about the nature of the “dietary acculturation paradox.” While food—the eating of Mexican foods—is central to the maintenance of ethnic identity throughout acculturation, negative perceptions about the healthfulness of Mexican foods introduce tension into Mexican-American women’s self-identification. This study suggests a subtle contradiction that may help to explain the dietary acculturation paradox: While previous research has suggested that as Mexicans acculturate to the United States they adopt unhealthy diets, this study finds evidence that they do so at least in part due to perceptions that American diets are healthier than Mexican diets. Implications for interventions to improve Latinos’ diets include an emphasis on the family and use of Spanish linguistic cues. Finally, messages that simply advocate for “traditional” diets should be reconsidered because that message is discordant with perceptions of the healthfulness of such foods.


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      A. S. Ramírez is an assistant professor, School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts, University of California, Merced, California.


      T. Golash-Boza is a professor, School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts, University of California, Merced, California.


      J. B. Unger is a professor, Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research, University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles, California.


      L. Baezconde-Garbanati is a professor, Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research, University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles, California.