Childhood and adult obesity: Mexico’s other epidemic

In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults (39% of the world’s population) were overweight, of which more than 650 million were obese. According to data from the World Health Organization, in just 45 years, the world’s obesity has almost tripled

Of all the countries in the world, Mexico ranks first in the world for childhood obesity and second for adult obesity. Depending on the country 2018 National Health and Nutrition Survey, 75 percent of Mexicans aged 20 and over are overweight or obese. Even more alarming, 35.6% of the country’s children aged 5 to 11 are overweight or obese.


The trend towards overweight and obesity among Mexico’s “Alpha Generation” and part of its “Generation Z” is of great concern. The obesity epidemic is a health problem that affects everyone, not just overweight people.

Photo: Consuelo Pagaza

A parallel increase in chronic noncommunicable diseases associated with obesity, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, has also been detected. And with the coronavirus pandemic that has yet to be brought under control, overweight and obesity pose greater risks for those infected with Covid-19.

According to Mexican Secretariat of Health, in addition to “poor academic performance and emotional problems such as lowered self-esteem”, these diseases not only cause problems for the people who suffer from them, but also for the economy of the country: “The OECD estimates that the gross domestic product (GDP) of Mexico) will decline by 5.3% between 2020 and 2050 due to the epidemic of overweight and obesity, which is also having a negative impact on vulnerable groups.

According to Calculations by the Health Secretariat, the total cost of obesity in 2017 alone was 240 billion pesos (9.9 billion euros, 12 billion US dollars), an amount that is expected to reach 272 billion pesos (11.2 billion billion euros, US $ 13.6 billion) by 2023.


A quick glance inside any store in Mexico will reveal the sheer number of processed foods on offer.

Photo: Consuelo Pagaza

Until recently, studies examining the causes of obesity focused on the poor choices made by individuals, but rarely examined the obesogenic environment, which the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said. described as “an environment that influences personal preferences for the consumption of food products high in calories, simple sugars, fats and salt, and of low nutritional quality”.

Alianza por la Salud Alimentaria (Alliance for Food Health), a group of organizations made up of academic experts and food rights activists, identifies as main factors “the accelerated deterioration of the eating habits of the population”, in particular a “decrease in the consumption of fruits and vegetables, cereals and legumes belonging to the traditional Mexican diet, rich and balanced, based on cultural diversity and of the national territory, and centered on the milpa cultivation system.


It has become more difficult to stock up on local, fresh and reasonably priced produce than on junk food.

Photo: Consuelo Pagaza

“Instead, we have seen an increase in the consumption of refined flours, sugary drinks, ultra-processed foods and drinks, supported by the large-scale marketing campaigns that dominate the physical and virtual space in due to insufficient regulation “, explains the Alliance.

“This epidemic is the result of an epidemiological transition that began in the 1980s and continued through the 1990s and 2000s. This has resulted in changes in the food system and trade, as well as a lack of very aggressive business practices regulation when these changes started to take shape, ”said Simón Barquera Cervera, director of the Center for Health Research (CINS) of the National Institute of Public Health (INSP), at a conference release on August 20, 2020.


Amaranth seed-based snacks like the ones pictured here are part of the traditional Mexican diet. They are replaced by snacks produced by various multinational food companies.

Photo: Consuelo Pagaza

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed between Mexico, the United States and Canada in 1994, and the arrival of large fast food chains “was a watershed moment. These highly processed products were suddenly available, cheap, and widely publicized, which encouraged people to buy them, ”said Paulina Magaña, Food Health Campaign Coordinator of El Poder del Consumidor. (Consumer Power). Equal times.

In January 2014, the Mexican government implemented a tax on sugary drinks of one peso per liter (about 10 percent). By the end of the same year, the consumption of sugary drinks had fallen by 12%, while the consumption of unsweetened drinks such as bottled water had increased by 4%.


The elaborate marketing campaigns of the food industry are fueling new consumption habits.

Photo: Consuelo Pagaza

According to the INSP, the application of the tax over 10 years would save about 91.6 million US dollars in health costs and prevent nearly 240,000 cases of obesity, more than 61,000 cases of diabetes , nearly 4,000 strokes, over 2,800 cases of hypertensive heart disease and over 4,000 cases of ischemic heart disease.

“The 10% Mexican tax does not go far enough. We have learned from the experience of other countries, the United States for example, where some cities have a 30 percent tax and have seen a 38 percent reduction in the consumption of sugary drinks. The aim of our organization is to double the current tax ”, explains Magaña.

Another strategy to fight the overweight epidemic is front-of-package labeling, recently adopted by Mexico. Following a multi-year campaign led by the Alliance for Food Health, the official Mexican standard NOM-051 came into effect on October 1, 2020. It requires front-of-package labeling for food and beverages alcoholic beverages that provide consumers with truthful information. and a concise warning of excess sugar, saturated fat, sodium, and other essential nutrients and ingredients. The old labeling system was not clear to consumers as it displayed the proportion of ingredients per serving as a percentage of the recommended daily allowance.


Introduced in 2020, front-of-package labeling now provides a clear and concise warning about the amount of excess sugars, saturated fat and other ingredients.

Photo: Consuelo Pagaza

In the new system, based on PAHO’s Nutritional Profile model, products are given up to five labels for excess sugars, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and calories.

“Information is power, and as consumers we didn’t have specific, clear information that could help us make decisions. This labeling system now gives us the ability to decide what we consume, it helps us demystify products. We’re starting to realize that many products that we used to consume because we thought they were healthier for us actually aren’t, ”says Diana Delgadillo, Public Policy Advocacy Manager at The Hunger Project (THP) Mexico.


In the state of Guerrero, located next to the state of Oaxaca, several communities cultivate and consume products originating from the region.

Photo: Consuelo Pagaza

Beyond taxes and front-of-package labeling, the biggest challenge facing healthy eating advocates is how to bring healthy food to rural and urban areas.

“According to FAO data, access to healthy food costs five times more than a diet based on ultra-processed foods. And if Latin America is the most expensive in this respect, all over the world, it is more expensive to access healthy food than ultra-processed food, ”explains Delgadillo, who emphasizes that the right to a adequate food “is guaranteed by the United Nations.”

The fault, he argues, is a multifaceted profit-driven food system. According to Delgadillo, one possible solution is to “move towards a food system where different diets, cultures, ecosystems and territorial contexts coexist, where food is seen as a right rather than a commodity.”


In the state of Guerrero, located next to the state of Oaxaca, several communities cultivate and consume products originating from the region.

Photo: Consuelo Pagaza

Plato del Buen Comer Mazateco, a project of THP Mexico in partnership with community members from San José Tenango, Oaxaca, is an example of how to achieve healthy and nutritious food in a region with high rates of malnutrition. , marginalization and poverty. The initiative has, among other things, saved seeds indigenous to the region, analyzed the nutritional value of local crops and encouraged the development of small gardens and the marketing and consumption of local foods shared in the community, without having to browse through kilometers to get them.

According to Maribel Gallardo, regional coordinator of the THP Oaxaca office, the community has started to record and compare the illnesses their ancestors suffered from those they suffer from today, and to look for ways to improve their health.

“The community got organized, we started talking with our grandparents about the foods we used to eat, the foods we no longer eat and the foods we didn’t even know existed, as well as the way these foods are prepared. There were recipes that I did not know and that differed from community to community. As Gallardo explains, the project encouraged dialogue between different communities, which allowed everyone to experience different flavors.

“We now prefer to make our own soup rather than going to the store to buy a ready-made soup. We are rediscovering traditional products. The economic impact on the community has also been positive: the cost of a single item that comes from outside the community (an individual container of yogurt, for example, which costs 10 pesos), can buy enough chayote to feed a whole family.

But spreading the benefits of initiatives such as Plato Mazateco as a means of tackling the obesity epidemic will require the involvement of health authorities and a strategy articulated at the national level.

As Delgadillo points out, the processes of rediscovering local food, reducing the distances food travels, and establishing food sovereignty focus on creating real value rather than generating profits: ‘use of food rather than its exchange value’.

About Leah Albert

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