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Cultural Identity and Calorie Consumption: There’s a Mouthful!

How is diet related to cultural assimilation?

The typical American diet is high in fat and calorie content
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What do you think of when confronted with the term American culture? Undoubtedly, there are a slew of "classic" images or notions that come to mind. The American Flag; Reality television—Jersey Shore anyone? There are of course standard American pastimes, such as baseball or Super Bowl Sunday which could also be seen as staples to American culture.

If you dig a little deeper, many of these pastimes are wholly incomplete unless also accompanied by food. Alas, a clearer image of American culture emerges: the ubiquitous golden arches, that classic green haired mermaid affixed on the Starbucks logo, supersizes and other such consumptive excesses. Even an episode of Jersey Shore is incomplete without their Sunday dinners, or at the very least, Snooki shoving a pickle or two. Who really watches the Super Bowl on Sunday after all, isn't the entire day devoted to food: pizza delivery and nachos and beer?

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Not only do most of us know by now that stuffing our mouths has become an equally compelling American pastime, but to most of us it is old news. The obesity epidemic, yeah, we get it. In fact, our girth here in the states has expanded so much that we are starting to see the epidemic spread worldwide. We can debate all the causes of said epidemic, which is a topic of merit in its own right, and has been done extensively by many scholars and policymakers alike (and likely will continue to be debated). In fact, with the First Lady tackling obesity among children in particular, there is hope that greater awareness and sensitivity will be brought to this issue, and perhaps just as importantly, that this new focus will lead to greater regulation and cultivation of a more nutritious American diet.
For the present, however, I want to focus on a compelling influence on what we eat as Americans that many of us may not even be aware of, and that is how cultural identity may subtly and yet strongly compel us toward less healthy eating habits.

Here's the thing about culture, and internalizing an American identity in particular for those of us with dual cultural identities to contend with: cultural influences are so insidious and oftentimes nearly imperceptible that we may fall prey to these forces without even being aware of it. Case in point: a recent study published in Psychological Science (see Guendelman et al., 2011) investigated how threatening the American identity of U.S. immigrants would influence their food choices. Lo and behold, what the researchers found with a series of ingenious studies was that activating threat to an immigrant's American identity would make them three times more likely to report preferences for a prototypical American diet (Guendelman et al., 2011). Just as compellingly, said identity threat led to these immigrants eating nearly 200 calories more and consuming 12 extra grams of fat because of their preference for and ordering of American meals in comparison to a control group of immigrants whose American identity was not threatened (and hence, who did not feel compelled to rank higher or order American foods over other dishes in an effort to restore their sense of American cultural identity). 

These findings are particularly noteworthy given that immigrants may feel compelled to abandon traditions such as the foods they eat in favor of more prototypical "American" fare as another means of assimilating into this culture. Such a notion wouldn't be nearly as disturbing if not for the fact that the American diet tends to have on average higher calorie and fat content than diets in other cultures. As the researchers of this study note, "identity-based psychological processes may help explain why the diets of U.S. immigrant groups tend to decline in nutritional value with longer residence in the United States and over generations" (Guendelman et al., 2011, p. 959).

Interestingly, White Americans who were in the "threat" condition experienced no alteration in their reported food preferences or ordering of foods compared to their White American counterparts in the control condition, suggesting that this effect is specific to those who have dual cultural identities or who are not perceived to be the "prototypical" American. In other words, White Americans aren't necessarily using food as a means of expressing their cultural identity in the same way because they don't feel compelled to do so, and anyway, they have been socialized solely with American dishes so their preferences for food are less subject to waver in comparison.

But for those of you who may not be the "prototypical" American, the next time you decide what to eat, particularly if you are in a social situation, ask yourself if you really want what it is that you are ordering, or if the food that you are about to consume in some way is serving as a tool to express a particular part of your cultural identity that you want to share with the world. After all, was the whole "Freedom Fries" debacle really that long ago?

So tell me what you think, does the food that you eat say anything about your cultural identity? Yes, indeed, the thought certainly is a mouthful. But perhaps in reflecting on this question, we can all become somewhat more mindful of our diets, and aware of what forces other than hunger may be swaying our nutritional choices. Until next time readers, I bid you Bon Appetit!

Guendelman, M.D., Cheryan, S., & Monin, B. (2011). Fitting in but getting fat: identity threat and dietary choices among U.S. immigrant groups. Psychological Science, 22(7), 959-967.

Copyright 2011 Azadeh Aalai

Azadeh Aalai, PhD, is a Tenure-Track, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Queensborough Community College in New York.

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