Tacos, tostadas and tamales, otherwise known as “Vitamin T” foods, that anchor the typical Mexican diet have historically given agricultural workers the energy boost needed to toil in soil. The amount of work needed to grow the produce that thrived in the tropical weather and fertile ground kept Mexican’s at a healthy weight.
Lifestyles changed after Mexico became more industrialized. Today, the country is the vanguard of obese malnutrition. The policies Mexico enacts will either help the world better understand their changing bodies, or make the country an example of what can happen when a nation ignores rising obesity rates.
In 2013, Mexico gripped the title of Most Obese Country out of the United States of America’s Cheeto-dusted fingers.
According to a report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, Mexico has a 32.8 percent adult obesity rate, and around 70 percent of Mexico’s population is either overweight or obese. That is coupled with one in six members of the population suffering from diabetes.
However, the growth rate of waist lines was popping the buttons off of pants long before the country made international news by taking the number one spot.
Reports in 2008 warned that Mexico could surpass the U.S. ranking of fattest country within 10 years if progression continued at the same speed. By that time, diabetes was already Mexico’s leading cause of death and the government was launching new campaigns to battle the food industry. Five years later, Mexico cut that prediction in half and spilled past the U.S.’s 31.8 percent obesity rate.
Obesity related diabetes is still the nation’s number one killer. Around 70,000 people die each year from diabetes alone, and heart related illnesses that can be traced back to obesity are close behind. In perspective, around 60,000 people were killed by Mexico’s well publicized gang violence from 2006-2012.
This is especially alarming for a country whose obesity rate was below 10 percent in 1989.
The blame for the country’s horizontal growth is placed on different people depending on who is asked.
Some blame the government, while others blame fast food restaurants from the U.S. What is in agreement however, is that the nation’s high poverty rate is the tap root of this blossoming problem.
The government gives cash to the poor through their anti-poverty programs, but oftentimes that money is spent on buying large quantities of cheap unhealthy food and sodas rather than responsibly sourced healthy food and water.
When Mexico removed restaurant restrictions in the 1990s, fast food establishments from the northern border flooded the market. Now the same products that helped put the U.S. on top of obesity charts are a staple of the Mexican diet.
Underlying both of these problems is Mexico’s high poverty rate, which has recently been hovering around 50 percent.
Parents now feed their children “comida chatarra,” or junk food, to sustain hungry children while staying within a tight budget. This leads to a contradiction on the common perception of malnutrition. Mexico’s youth are both overweight and malnourished as empty calories and fats fill their bellies while their bodies’ are starved of proper nutrients.
Southern Mexico has been hit especially hard by the industrialization of agriculture. In some impoverished regions it is harder to find drinkable water than cheaper bottled sodas, especially in schools. One national study found 25 percent of children ages 5–11 were overweight, a 40 percent increase in 14 years. The National Institute of Public Health found the consumption of sodas is up 60 percent in the last 16 years.
The government under current President Enrique Pena has attempted to tackle obesity by chasing the consumption of soda. After a campaign to tax soda 20 percent per liter, the average bottle of Coca-Cola is .5 liters, Mexican legislators settled on a tax of 10 percent per liter. Mexicans drink an estimated 1.4 liters per day, and according to the National Institute of Public Health, the 10 percent tax should reduce that to around 1.2 liters per day. They estimate it could prevent a notable 630,000 cases of diabetes by 2030.
Legislation helps move the populace in the right direction, but it takes a cultural shift to move a nation out of the weight of obesity. The way in which Mexico responds to their weight will be a marker for other countries battling with their belts, especially the U.S., New Zealand, Chile and Australia who round out the top five obese countries, all above 24 percent.
If this is the growing trend of how countries react to their move from agricultural to industrial nations, then humanity might have a big problem on their hands.