According to research reported on Friday at the Fifth Asian American Cancer Control Academy, the number of children among this population who are overweight has increased at an alarming rate and will soon catch up to the percentage of low-income white, black and Latino children who are overweight or obese.
The percentage of low-income Asian and Pacific Islander children in California who are overweight more than doubled between 1994 and 2003, from 7 percent to 15 percent.
"California has the most Asian Americans in the United States, and we've got the opportunity to mount aggressive programs to prevent the unhealthy acculturation-related changes in diet and physical activity that have occurred with other immigrant groups," said Susan Foerster, chief of the Cancer Prevention and Nutrition Section of the California Department of Health Services.
"Efforts to stop the erosion of the healthy traditional Asian and Pacific Islander dietary and activity patterns are urgently needed to stop the sharp increases we're seeing in overweight people, especially children."
Foerster and colleagues, together with researchers from the UCLA School of Public Health, recently looked at 24 focus groups involving more than 200 individuals from three low-income Asian-American ethnic groups: Chinese, Vietnamese and Hmong.
"Asian immigrants have a lot to teach mainstream America about health," said the researchers, adding that all three Asian subgroups agreed a healthy lifestyle depended on eating nutritious foods, especially fresh produce, and being physically active.
However, Margorie Kagawa-Singer, associate professor of public health at the School of Public Health and Asian American Studies Department at UCLA, said that many of the participants expressed a sense of powerlessness over the influence of television and food advertising and the school environment on their children.
"The marketplace and schools are the main purveyors of poor dietary practices," said Kagawa-Singer. "Nobody is telling immigrant families that their traditional diets are good and should be maintained."
Moon Chen, professor of public health sciences at UC Davis School of Medicine and Medical Centers, said: "We cannot afford to wait to prevent the development of diseases that are often irreversible once they start. The Asian American populations in California offer a rare opportunity to avert a health disparity before it occurs."
She recommended that a special campaign was launched targeted at California's low-income, immigrant Chinese, Vietnamese and Hmong communities "to counter the Americanized diet and protect the beneficial traditional Asian diet."
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders constitute almost 5 percent of the population of the United States and 12 percent of the California population. About 70 percent of Asian Americans in this country are first-generation immigrants.
In California, low-income children are increasingly overweight. Among low-income white children, 18 percent are overweight or obese, a 50-percent increase between 1994 and 2003. The rate is 19 percent for blacks, up 46 percent, and 23 percent for Latinos, a 44-percent increase.
Poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle, with resulting overweight and obesity, contribute to one in three cancers in the US, as well as chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
A survey carried out by Packaged Facts, a division of Market research.com, last year found that an increasingly wide range of Asian food products are finding their way into American stores aimed at the growing number of Asian-Americans. The research group found that the market for shelf-stable, refrigerated, and frozen Asian foods is now worth $400 million market.
However, as the report noted: "you can't ignore the convenience factor: Asian food products can be easily packaged and quickly prepared, playing right into the desire that more and more consumers have expressed for faster, more convenient meal preparations." In other words, many of these products are not as healthy and nutrient rich as traditional Asian foods, and are contributing to the rise of over-weight adults and children in this sector of the American population.