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Real Americans Eat Too Much

New research finds people of Asian ancestry are viewed as more American if they are overweight.

Asian Americans: Do you feel fully accepted by your fellow citizens? Or do you get the impression that many of them view you as somehow foreign?

Well, new research reveals a way you can identify yourself as an all-American guy or gal: Pack on a few pounds.

"Perceptions of nationality are malleable," writes a research team led by Stanford University psychologist Caitlin Handron. It reports that, in a series of studies, "overweight Asian individuals were perceived as significantly more American than normal-weight versions of the same people."

Apparently nothing says U.S.A. like wearing size XXL.

In the journal Psychological Science, the researchers describe 10 studies in which participants "were show portraits that were edited to make the photographed person either overweight (with a body-mass index above 25) or normal weight." Photographs of the same people were used "to control for other features that might cue American identity, such as clothing and hair."

Three of the studies exclusively featured photos of Asian individuals. Three others included both Asians and whites, while the final four featured Asians, whites, blacks, and Latinos.

Apparently nothing says U.S.A. like wearing size XXL.

Participants—recruited around the University of Washington campus, and, for one study, online—looked at a series of portraits and answered questions such as "How American do you think this person is?," "How likely is this person to have been born outside the U.S.?," and "How likely is it that this person's native language is English?"

The results: "Asian Americans who are overweight are considered more likely to be Americans by other Americans," the researchers report. In contrast, "weight did not affect perceptions of how much members of other racial groups were perceived as Americans."

"Extra weight—even relatively small amounts—afforded Asian individuals a measure of protection against assumptions that they are not American," they conclude.

A final study suggests this bias is driven by the accurate perception that Americans are generally fatter than people living on the other side of the Pacific.

"Over two-thirds of the U.S. population is currently obese or overweight," the researchers note. That's true of less than half of the populace in China, Japan, and South Korea." What's more, a 2000 study found Asian immigrants to the United States "are significantly more likely to be overweight than native-born Asian-Americans."

These findings have particularly important implications for one group of people: undocumented immigrants. "Overweight Asian men were also more likely than their normal-weight counterparts to be buffered from assumptions that they were living in the U.S. without documentation," the researchers report.

If gaining weight is a way of lowering the suspicion of immigration enforcement—and blending into society, whatever your legal status—it also has a distinct down side: the many medical problems that are caused or exacerbated by obesity.

As Handron and her colleagues write, Asian Americans face "suboptimal choices: Remain the 'perpetual foreigner,' or potentially jeopardize health to appear more American."

But if fitting in is more important to you than fitting into your clothes, head out for some fatty fast food. For better or worse, you, too, can embody the essence of our nation.