Immigrants and refugees to the United States exhibit lower dietary quality than the general population, but reasons for this disparity are poorly understood. In this study, we describe the meanings of food, health and wellbeing through the reported dietary preferences, beliefs, and practices of adults and adolescents from four immigrant and refugee communities in the Midwestern United States.
Using a community based participatory research approach, we conducted a qualitative research study with 16 audio-recorded focus groups with adults and adolescents who self-identified as Mexican, Somali, Cambodian, and Sudanese. Focus group topics were eating patterns, perceptions of healthy eating in the country of origin and in the U.S., how food decisions are made and who in the family is involved in food preparation and decisions, barriers and facilitators to healthy eating, and gender and generational differences in eating practices. A team of investigators and community research partners analyzed all transcripts in full before reducing data to codes through consensus. Broader themes were created to encompass multiple codes.
Results show that participants have similar perspectives about the barriers (personal, environmental, structural) and benefits of healthy eating (e.g., ‘junk food is bad’). We identified four themes consistent across all four communities: Ways of Knowing about Healthy Eating (‘Meanings;’ ‘Motivations;’ ‘Knowledge Sources’), Eating Practices (‘Family Practices;’ ‘Americanized Eating Practices’ ‘Eating What’s Easy’), Barriers (‘Taste and Cravings;’ ‘Easy Access to Junk Food;’ ‘Role of Family;’ Cultural Foods and Traditions;’ ‘Time;’ ‘Finances’), and Preferences for Intervention (‘Family Counseling;’ Community Education;’ and ‘Healthier Traditional Meals.’).Some generational (adult vs. adolescents) and gender differences were observed.
Our study demonstrates how personal, structural, and societal/cultural factors influence meanings of food and dietary practices across immigrant and refugee populations. We conclude that cultural factors are not fixed variables that occur independently from the contexts in which they are embedded.