TheOverseas Development Institute(ODI), a British think tank, recently published a report examining the growing rates of obesity worldwide. With the title “Future Diets: Implications for Agriculture and Food Prices,” ODI’s analysis argues that the countries where there has been an alarming increase in obesity rates do not come from the developed world, but rather from developing nations.
In Latin America, ODI highlights Mexico as a nation where a sugar and fat-heavy diet has prompted an exponential growth in the number of overweight and obese adults over the past decades.
The ODI’s comprehensive118-page reportestimates that “over one third of all adults across the world -1.46 billion people – are obese or overweight. Between 1980 and 2008, the numbers of people affected in the developing world more than tripled, from 250 million to 904 million.” Certainly, this is a troubling development.
What are the reasons for Mexico’s weight problem? ODI argues that NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, Mexico and the U.S., has furthered the spread ofobesityin the Spanish-speaking nation.
ODI’s argument is that the creation of NAFTA (which, ironically, celebrated its 20thanniversary on January 1st) promoted U.S. investment in Mexican processing and retailing, such as supermarkets and urban convenience stores. The UK think tank argues that “since that time there have been alarming increases in the consumption of fats and refined carbohydrates- with sugary soft drinks to the fore.”
Certainly, NAFTA is not the sole reason for Mexico’s health woes, but it has aided the problem. Another issue, as ODI emphasizes, are cultural preferences in Mexico, among other nations, for particular foods which are not necessarily healthy.
A Mexican reality
Unsurprisingly, the ODI report only confirms other reports on Mexico’s health problem. For example, a report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization entitled “The State of Food and Agriculture 2013,” mentions that in 2008, 32% of Mexican adults were obese – which translates into over 35 million citizens (the 2010 census puts Mexico’s population at just over 112 million). Similarly, the Mexican media regularly reports on the country’s obesity rates.
The Mexican government is not oblivious to the country’s weight problem. An October 2013blog post in the Mexican presidency’s official websitediscusses the governments’ three pillars to create an obese-free Mexico. These pillars provide some unsurprising proposals, such as promoting physical activity among the general population and providing healthier food for children (childhood obesityin Mexico reportedly grew at 1.1% annually between 1998 to 2006).
But it is interesting that the third health pillar discusses governmental regulation of food, including a seal of “nutritional quality” for products that have “high nutritional standards.”
On the other hand, products which are calorie-rich will be regulated. This seems to have already happened, as in 2013 Mexico passed a controversial tax on sugary-drinks with the goal would be to discourage customers from buying soda, similar to U.S. efforts to dissuade cigarette smokers through taxation.
Also a problem for Latinos in the U.S.
To be fair, even though obesity is a growing problem in the developing world, this does not mean that the health status of the citizens of developed nations is ideal. The U.S., the global political, economic and military powerhouse, is also suffering from an obesity problem. Hispanic Americans in particular have alarmingly high problems with obesity.
According to theU.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “in 2011, Hispanic Americans were 1.2 times as likely to be obese than Non-Hispanic Whites.” The department also provides info on Mexican American women, as “78 percent are overweight or obese, as compared to only 60.3 percent of the non-Hispanic White women.”
This health problem among Hispanic American arguably has some cultural characteristics. For example, an October 17 article in CNN.com mentions the belief among some members of the female Hispanic American community that their weight is “normal” when clinically speaking they are overweight.
For scholars that analyze health issues, the findings of the ODI on the health and obesity status of the world are not particularly surprising. Nevertheless, the claim that a third of the global population is now overweight or obese is troubling. These recent statistics mean that in the near future, the ministries of health, health providers and health insurance companies around the world will have their hands full due to the likely rise of weight-related health problems.
Initiatives for healthier lifestyles, like the aforementioned three health pillars of the Mexican government or civic agencies in the U.S. that fight childhood obesity among Hispanic Americans, should be both encouraged and will hopefully be effective. Though for the moment their success rate is debatable as the ODI and FAO reports argue that obesity levels continue to grow.
This trend becomes even more problematic when we take into account the fact that the U.S. health care system is stretched to its limits. Likewise, it is unlikely that the Mexican health system will fare any better as weight-related illnesses increase in the near future.