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Obesity is ballooning in Latin America


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For countries with rich culinary traditions that date back to the Aztecs and Incas, Mexico and Peru have developed quite a taste for modern food fashions. Mexicans quaff more sugary, carbonated drinks than any other country, and Peru has the highest density of fast-food joints in the world. Chile, one of the world's biggest exporters of fruit, doesn't eat much of it: Processed foods account for more than half an average Chilean's shopping basket. Even in slender Brazil, the eating of sweets and junk food has risen fivefold in 30 years.


Not all waistlines have met this barrage of sugar, salt and fat in the same way, but across much of Latin America and the Caribbean the trend stands out like a muffin top. The Food and Agricultural Organization, a United Nations agency, says that the region has become the most overweight in the developing world. In contrast to 1990, when the fat epidemic took off, far more years of healthy life are now lost in Latin America through overeating than through hunger.

As deaths from obesity-related diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and cancer have risen, so has the cost of treating them. In Mexico, where obesity is roughly as common as in the United States, diabetes kills about 70,000 people a year. Public-health officials reckon that the cost of obesity, around $6 billion in 2008, will more than double by 2017.

Governments are trying to stop their citizens from waddling into early graves. Dr. Enrique Jacoby of the Pan American Health Organization, a division of the World Health Organization, says seven countries in Latin America -- Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay -- have agreed on regulations to improve eating habits in schools, including providing drinking water and restricting the sale of processed food. They also are promoting exercise, a tricky undertaking in cities where crime, pollution and traffic prevent most children from playing outdoors.

The efforts to foster healthier diets have been met with intense lobbying from the food and drink industries, however. Jacoby cites cases in Brazil in 2010 and Costa Rica in 2012 in which companies challenged regulations on constitutional grounds, and in Brazil won. He expects a similar battle as Peru begins to impose a "junk food" law, passed in May, which restricts the advertising and sale of snacks in schools.

Juan Rivera of Mexico's National Institute of Public Health says that food and drink companies watered down landmark regulations in 2010, ensuring that sugary juices remained on school menus and that limits on sugar and fat were relaxed. The industry responds that it merely sought a more scientific approach to setting calorie limits.

Senators are bracing for opposition from lobbyists if they succeed in slapping a 20-per-cent tax on carbonated drinks as part of a fiscal reform expected later this year. Lorena Cerdan of Con Mexico, which represents consumer-goods companies, argues that such a tax would only cause the drinks to be replaced by something equally sugary. Better, she says, to persuade people to adopt healthier lifestyles, including more exercise.

In any case, for adults at least, diet is a personal choice. The gallons of soft drinks guzzled across Latin America suggest that, for many, taste trumps nutrition.

In practice many consumers' choices are limited. The food and drink industries have such efficient distribution systems and such big marketing budgets that sellers of local produce cannot compete, nor can governments get out an equally seductive healthy message. That is not the industry's fault, but it means that the poorest communities often exhibit the strange phenomenon of malnutrition and obesity living side by side. Rivera says that some Mexican mothers wean their babies at three months on carbonated drinks.

Sometimes governments meekly swallow this. Nestle, which describes itself as a "nutrition, health and wellness company," has signed up for Mexico's main nutritional program, the "National Crusade Against Hunger," to encourage businesswomen to make puddings in which they may use Nestle products. The initiative is called "My Sweet Business."

Even multilateral institutions are not impregnable. In 2012 an investigation by the news agency Reuters found that the PAHO, which had linked 'Big Food' to the spread of obesity-related diseases, was itself taking industry cash. Afterward Margaret Chan, head of the WHO, drew a vivid picture of the power of food companies.

"Mosquitoes do not have front groups and mosquitoes do not have lobbies," Chan said, "but the industries that contribute to the rise of noncommunicable diseases do."

The troops fighting the battle of the bulge face fearsome opposition.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2013 D6

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