Module 3: Opening a Dialogue
Communicating About Food

3.3 Changing Food Patterns

Acculturation is the process of adopting the beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviors of a dominant, or mainstream, culture. Part of this process includes changing some traditional dietary patterns to be more like those of the dominant culture.

Many factors influence acculturation:

  • History of cultural groups in the community
  • Length of time the individual or group has been in the community
  • Involvement of the individual with his ethnic group in the community
  • Commitment of the individual to cultural traditions
  • Religious beliefs and practices
  • Ties with family
  • Family structure
  • Language
  • Employment

Acculturation does not involve only immigrants. It is an ongoing process that affects anyone who moves from one region of this country to another. As we move around within the country, we take some food patterns with us, adopt some new ones, and continually alter the cultural food mix.

As MCH professionals, we must understand how acculturation affects the families we work with and how, in turn, their nutrition is affected by the process.


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Acculturation occurs differently for everyone. It may occur at different rates among different families from the same cultural background. It may even occur at different rates among members of the same family.

Everyone has a different reason for coming to the United States or moving from one community to another. These reasons affect how acculturation occurs and how quickly. People may choose to continue their traditional eating patterns, regardless of education or income.

Variations in age and exposure to new ideas affect the extent to which people adopt new practices or beliefs. The older generation may keep traditional cultural ways and maintain the traditional diet. Parents may make some changes (often with pressure from their children). Children may adopt new ways quickly as they learn from other children at school.

Does Acculturation Negatively Affect Health?
While some studies have linked length of time in the United States and poorer health outcomes, others have cast doubt on the connection.1 Understand that acculturation is a variable process that may play positive or negative roles in clients’ health or nutrition statuses at different points in their lives.

Changes in dietary patterns — or “repatterning” — occur as a part of the acculturation process. Dietary repatterning may cause major changes in nutrient intake.

Dietary repatterning can involve:

  •  Adding new foods
    • New foods are added to the diet for several reasons: status, health, economics, information, taste, or exposure. Eating “American” food (such as hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza) may represent status and make people feel that they are part of their new culture and way of life.
    • People may add foods because they believe that they are healthy, based on new information that they’ve learned. New foods are often added for economic reasons — they may be inexpensive and readily available.
  •  Substituting new foods
    • Sometimes traditional foods are replaced by new foods in a family’s diet. This happens for a variety of reasons. It may be hard to find a traditional food in local food stores, and new foods or ingredients must be substituted. New foods may be more convenient, less expensive, or better liked.
  •  Rejecting traditional foods
    • Some people — especially children and adolescents — will give up traditional foods because eating these foods makes them feel different from their peers. They want to become “American.” Resentment of parents or grandparents who encourage traditional ways of eating may cause distress in some families.

Practice Pointer

Don’t make assumptions! Those who dress and speak like the “mainstream” may still follow traditional ways at home out of respect for their elders or because of their own ethnic pride. For example, they might continue to use foods in traditional combinations or as medicines.

Keep in mind that dietary changes — additions, substitutions, and rejections — do not happen independently of each other, and they are not always easy to predict. As people settle in a new community, they may increase or decrease the use of traditional foods.

Change is almost always a two-way street. Whenever people from two or more cultures interact, they will influence each other, including food habits.

Practice Pointer
“When we tried to talk to the African American women at the clinic about soul food, they told us that although those foods are a part of their cultural heritage, those are not the only foods they eat. They said they eat Chinese food, Italian food, and Mexican food, too. The same thing has happened when we talked to other cultural groups about their traditional foods. They were very quick to point out that they enjoy many other kinds of food.”

1 Viruell-Fuentes, EA, and Schulz, AJ. (2009). Toward a dynamic conceptualization of social ties and context: Implications for understanding immigrant and Latino health. Journal of public health. 99(12): 2167–2175.