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If one’s taste preferences truly stopped evolving during childhood, people who immigrate to the U.S. would always continue eating their native diets. Yet, for better or worse, most change their diets significantly, says David Himmelgreen, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida and former president of the Council on Nutritional Anthropology. “Changes in immigrants’ eating preferences stem from a combination of many social and cultural factors,” says Himmelgreen. For many, necessity drives change. For example, moving to the U.S. may mean longer commutes and extended workdays, which can force a shift toward more convenience foods. Or, if one’s traditional foods are far more expensive in one’s new home, it may be impractical, or impossible, to continue eating them.
Sometimes, education and social support motivate positive dietary changes. “When people discover the benefits of healthy foods and learn that it may not be so difficult to implement new ways of eating, they generally want to change,” says Himmelgreen.
In retrospect, I realize that an increasing awareness of nutrition probably was part of Jack’s motivation to change. Anytime I wrote a nutrition article or prepared a presentation, I tried it out on him. He’d give me feedback on what sounded too technical and what was interesting. It wasn’t long after Jack became my professional sounding board that he started making intentional dietary shifts.
And somewhat like the immigrants Dr. Himmelgreen studies, Jack’s eating preferences were shaped by a new environment: we’d moved from Texas to Florida, where we now live. Tampa isn’t exactly a health-food mecca, but you’d be hard pressed to find many restaurants that serve chicken-fried steak, dumplings and fried okra. Our home was stocked conveniently with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, which I enjoyed regularly in Jack’s company, consistently offering tastes but not pressuring him to try anything. Basically, I’d created the very sort of positive eating environment that helps cultivate healthy taste preferences in kids, according to Dr. Fisher and other experts.
People often tell me that they are wowed by Jack’s healthy transformation and weight loss. My response always has been, “He did all the work.” He did. But now I realize that I helped set the stage. What would Jack be eating today, if he’d never met me? I wondered. So I asked. “Crispy beef tacos with extra cheese,” he told me. “And wearing my size-40 pants,” he added, sitting comfortably in his 34s.
—Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D., is a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and a lecturer at the University of South Florida.