More than 40 million immigrants live in the US, 14% of the nation’s population. While new immigrant arrivals have decreased in recent years, most are healthier than native-born Americans when they arrive. This phenomenon, often referred to as the healthy immigrant paradox, is tied to eating balanced diets and being physically active before arriving in the US.
This immigrant health advantage tends to decline the longer one lives in the US. Once here, immigrants experience a shift in their traditional diets because of limited or no access to food items from their home countries. Compensating for this loss often means consuming more processed foods high in saturated fat, sugar, and cholesterol and less consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Lower income and lack of access to traditional foods exacerbates the risk of food insecurity among immigrants.
A recent study found that food insecurity and number of years lived in the US were both associated with diagnosis of chronic heart diseases, severe chest pain, heart attack, self-rated poor health, and obesity. In addition to being at increased risk for these negative health outcomes, immigrants typically have lower rates of health insurance, use less health care, and receive lower quality of care than U.S.-born populations.
This phenomenon, often referred to as the healthy immigrant paradox, is tied to eating balanced diets and being physically active before arriving in the US.
Individuals who have lived in the US for five years or less are the most vulnerable to food insecurity, while those who lived in the US for six to 14 years experience more stable food security. Risk for food insecurity increases again for long-term immigrants—those who have lived in the US for more than 15 years.
Given this reality, intentional efforts to improve and maintain the health of immigrants are necessary. Organizations like Puentes de Salud, African Family Health Organization, and Nationalities Services Center are assisting immigrants with gaining access to healthy foods and higher paying jobs, navigating the health and education system, and overcoming language barriers.