Fast Foodies

September 1, 2005

It’s a typical Saturday night in a noisy Chinese restaurant in Houston’s sprawling, strip-mall-filled Chinatown. Waiters bustle through a maze of tables, fish shimmy in crowded tanks, and three generations of the Chew clan sit down to a family feast. Though most of the third generation—who range in age from single digits to the twenties—know their way around chopsticks, forks are summoned, with the winking explanation, “They’re ABC.” 

Having American-born Chinese at the table also means adjusting the menu to their palate. There will be some Mongolian beef, perhaps some honey walnut prawns, and most definitely some fried rice. But one youngster refuses to take part in even the watered-down Chinese food.

This is not the first time that Zachary Long has refused to eat in an Asian restaurant. He also won’t touch anything resembling a vegetable. His parents, used to such acts of defiance, have come prepared. They’ve brought a Lunchable.

Zachary is more than a picky eater, he’s an unwholesome one who favors hamburgers and pizza to steamed fish and bok choy. And that may be costing him his health. At four or five years old, Zachary’s weight already concerned his parents. Today at 11 years old, he weighs 135 pounds. His parents are trying everything they can to slim him down: enroll him in multiple sports, consult a doctor and of course, change his diet. They’ve also educated both sets of grandparents to make sure everyone is in on the game plan.

“It takes a village to raise a fat kid,” Zachary’s father, Kevin Long says.

The family knows what is at risk. Unhealthy diets lead to dangerously high cholesterol levels, heart disease and stroke.

But while American health organizations have been sounding the alarm about the obesity epidemic for the past few years, the face of obesity has rarely been Asian American. While the toxic effects of a western diet may not be as visible in Asian Americans, the consequences are becoming more evident.

Among second-generation Asian Americans, raised on ubiquitous fast food and a sedentary lifestyle, disease rates are climbing. The longest residents and most acculturated groups are seeing higher cardiovascular disease and diabetes rates, and cancer rates equal to those of Caucasians, with breast cancer rates even surpassing those of whites, according to Dr. Marjorie Kagawa-Singer of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for Research, Education, Training and Strategic Communication on Minority Health Disparities.

But it’s not just American-born Asians who are learning these bad habits. The changing immigrant diet is leading to increased health risks, especially among low-income immigrants. Little money and lack of access to fresh produce and traditional Asian foods keep people from eating staples of the Asian diet, such as fresh vegetables, legumes and fish.

Make no mistake: the obesity epidemic has hit the Asian American home.

While some traditional Asian cultures might see getting fat as a sign of gaining wealth, Asian American culture today shows that higher obesity rates occur with lower income.

Low-income Asian and Pacific Islander children in California are becoming overweight at an alarming rate, and will soon catch up to the proportion of low-income white, black and Latino children who are overweight or obese, according to the Asian American Cancer Control Academy. The percentage of low-income Asian and Pacific Islander children in California who are overweight more than doubled between 1994 and 2003, from seven percent to 15 percent.

One problem is the lack of access to high quality food, says Dr. Kagawa-Singer of UCLA. Many low-income neighborhoods don’t even have proper grocery stores with fresh produce, let alone Asian markets.

For those who do have access to an Asian market, not all of those stores use the food stamp program. So immigrants substitute foods they no longer have access to with fast food and takeout—light on the pocket book, but high in oil content.

Finding traditional Asian foods is not a problem for Zachary and his family in Houston, which is home to a large and diverse Asian American population. Asian grocery stores—some of them megastores—line Bellaire Boulevard, the unofficial main street for Houston’s sizeable Chinese and Vietnamese communities. Many Asian vegetables are also grown locally in Texas by enterprising Asian American farmers who have met the demand by generating a home-grown supply.

For Zachary, like many second- and third-generation Asian Americans, the challenge is not finding traditional Asian foods, but learning to eat them regularly.

“When he was younger, he was really good,” says his mother Jeannie Chew. “I could feed him anything. And then the older he got, when he started verbalizing things, he just wanted to eat the stuff that’s bad for him. He didn’t like vegetables. … He just wouldn’t eat them.”

Regardless of income, Asian American adolescents born in the U.S. are more than twice as likely to be obese than first generation residents, according to a study by nutritionists in the late ’90s.

Immigrants and their families who leave behind the traditional Asian diet and physically active lifestyles for fast food and hours of TV pay the price for a new life.

Chew’s parents ran a small grocery store in El Paso, TX that catered to a Latino clientele. Asian foods were not easy to come by in El Paso and the family mostly ate what they sold in the store, occasionally ordering canned Asian goods from California. But Chew and her sisters grew up, more or less, on an Asian diet, albeit a modified one.

And while Chew, who is slim and petite, says she could eat Chinese food every day, she says her Caucasian husband wouldn’t want to. Still, the main factor in Zachary’s weight gain, she says, is not what they’re eating at home, but the fact that they seldom do.

“We probably eat out more than the normal family because I work,” she says. “I think our culture also emphasizes the wrong type of food at school. They eat crap like pizza and hotdogs and hamburgers.”

Zachary’s father has his own theories as to why his son is overweight. “One, there is higher fat in the way food is prepared in American cuisine,” Kevin Long says. “Two, is this idiotic runaway tendency to put five servings in front of people as a way to get them to come back to your restaurant.”

One tactic in getting Zachary to manage his weight is to get him to eat smaller servings. “One breakthrough was getting Zach to realize he needs to order off the children’s menu. … He now realizes if he’s hungry later, he can get something else, like a piece of fruit.”

But is reverting to the “traditional Asian diet” the answer? Raj Naik of Sugarland, TX doesn’t think so. Naik, a vegetarian, eats fast food or takeout at least once a day. He says that although he might eat more grains and lentils if he kept with a traditional Indian diet, he believes he would overeat regardless of what type of cuisine he chose. Like Long, he believes 
it’s not necessarily the type of food 
consumed that’s driving weight gain, but how much.

With a tendency toward abdominal obesity, South Asians more than other Asians are at a high risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, according to recent studies.

And with a family history of heart disease—Naik’s mother died of a heart attack, his father had quadruple bypass surgery and his brother suffered a heart attack at age 44—he’s decided it’s time to do something about his weight. He recently joined Weight Watchers. Naik has also been working out at least three times a week, and has slowly but steadily been losing weight.

New Yorker J.C. Punzalan says switching to the traditionally Filipino diet wouldn’t help him lose weight. “It’s very rich and 
fattening,” he says.

Still worse, long work days keep Punzalan from reaching his goal of working out three times a week. He works for an HIV organization at Hunter College.

“I’ve just been so busy that when I go home, I just want to stay home and relax,” he says. “It would be better for me if I woke up early to go to the gym before my day started, but I am too lazy to do that. I really just need to get my ass in gear and do it.” 

Perhaps it’s the fault of modern American culture—with its quick pace, fast food, sedentary lifestyle and workaholic mindset—more so than the lack of traditional Asian foods, that’s leading to an upswing in weight gain.

Still, Zachary’s parents would love to see their son eating more Asian food. They’ve tried to instill the notion that picking only certain foods means losing out. And that means no more Lunchables at Chinese restaurants.

“He can’t get away with not eating what’s put in front of him anymore,” says his father. “If he doesn’t want to eat the food, that’s fine. Everyone else eats and he can sit and watch.” 

Additional reporting by Melissa Hung

Althea D. Chang is Hyphen’s news editor. She continues to eat junk food, attempting to make up for it with tae kwon do and other cardiovascular exercise.

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