Manuel Ayala pulled out a year-old newspaper from a desk in his office at the Instituto de Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico. A government-sponsored insert reads “Chécate, Mídete, Muévete,” and comes with a color-coded measuring tape indicating the user’s risk for obesity depending on waist size.
Ayala flipped the measuring tape to the blue side meant for men and examined the color ranking and small numbers. He checks out. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO, 32.8 percent of Mexican citizens are stretching the measuring tape toward the obese label.
Mexico became the most obese populous nation in 2013. Other than scattered and sparsely populated islands in the Pacific, FAO declared the country has the biggest weight problem in the world.
Statistics flooded the international media after FAO’s report was released. The obesity rate increased 22.8 percent in 24 years. The Mexican Diabetes Federation estimates between 6.5 and 10 million Mexicans have diabetes. More than 70,000 Mexicans die each year from diabetes, and 400,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. Weight-related diabetes and high blood pressure affects 14 percent of Mexico’s population.
“It is a multifactoral problem,” Ayala said. “Not only a health problem, but a mass media problem, a cultural problem. It’s not just an aesthetic problem or just how the teens look.”
The defining moment of Mexico’s obesity problem is difficult to determine.
The traditional Mexican diet of “Vitamin T” foods, tacos, tamales and tostadas, has become a problem for a workforce shifting from energy consuming agricultural jobs to more sedentary industrial jobs.
Another problem is that cheap junk food and soda have become a new dietary staple since Mexico opened its trade borders through the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health reported that each of Mexico’s 118 million people drink 163 liters of soft drinks each day. Ayala’s city of Monterrey consumes the most Coca Cola per capita in the world.
“The reason for this large consumption of soda is that it is cheaper than buying water or any of the alternatives, and it fills you up more,” said Javi Halffter, a Mexico City native who plays lacrosse for both the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico and the Mexican national team.
In Mexico City, the government passed a law prohibiting K–12 schools from selling junk food and soda. Halffter believes this is the best step the government has taken so far to reduce obesity. The underlying problem, however, has two unaddressed aspects.
“One, even though the government preaches for a healthier diet, most Mexicans can’t afford to substitute cheap junk food for more expensive and healthier food,” Halffter said. “Two, the government doesn’t incentivize schools and people to do enough exercise.”
The combination of those two factors is what is dangerous, said Beth Bussey, nutrition oncologist at the John B Amos Cancer Center in Columbus, Ga.
“You can go in your air-conditioned car with power steering, expend the energy to press the button to roll the window down, get a boat load of calories into your car and into your mouth that would have sustained somebody working in a field for two or three days without ever having to expend more than five calories,” Bussey said.
According to research by the National Survey of Health and Nutrition, there is a strong correlation between poverty and obesity.
Mexico has been hovering near a 50 percent poverty rate since 2012, and people in poverty are eating more foods with high sugar and fat content than the rest of the country. One reason is that unhealthy foods are easy to find in poor neighborhoods.
“In some areas it is easier to get a chocolate cookie at the store than to get an apple,” Ayala said. “An apple is very expensive, and a cookie is very cheap.”
Obesity and poverty are correlated, but obesity is a problem with multiple factors.
“One problem is food, the other is bad habits,” Ayala said. Sports and other physical activity aren’t as much in the lives of the lower socio-economic classes “because they don’t have time, they are working late.”
Current president Enrique Pena Nieto’s National Crusade Against Hunger is aimed at easing food insecurity for around 7.4 million Mexicans, but critics argue that families spend cash from the program on food that isn’t nutritious.
The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, was signed in 1994 by the U.S., Mexico and Canada. The agreement eliminated most tariffs on products traded among the three countries, and allowed wealthy food producers into Mexico.
This movement of cheap foods has led to a change in the consumption habits of Mexican citizens characterized by an increased caloric intake.
Consumer-oriented products that are ready to eat have replaced eating at home and natural food restaurants. McDonald’s has more than 500 establishments in 57 cities, and Yum! Brand Inc.’s restaurants, KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Long John Silver’s, have their largest regional market in Mexico.
Fast food, snack food and soft drink businesses buy up the advertising in social media, print and on Mexican television. The businesses’ expensive advertising campaigns overshadow the government’s public service announcements.
In Mexico City, a billboard of a diabetic man with missing limbs stares out onto the city. Government public service announcements like billboards, commercials and newspaper inserts are being watered down by advertisements from big corporations.
“The government is making a lot of effort,” Ayala said. “But there is huge competition between the message the government tells people, what advertisements tell people, and people’s habits.”
Mexico is economically and progressively one of the most powerful countries in Latin America. If current trends persist, obesity related illnesses and their subsequent health costs could bankrupt the country.
Athletes such as Halffter exercise regularly and avoid fast food and soda. He believes a possible solution to rising obesity rates is for the government to create an exercise culture, with schools placing a bigger emphasis on exercise and sports. In addition, the country should work on more junk food bans like the one in Mexico City schools, and subsidize healthier foods and bottled water.
Multiple factors contribute to the obesity problem, and Ayala believes it will take a movement spearheaded by the media to solve the problem.
“We’ve got to begin to have a big effort in mass media to fight these problems, because the media are the main source of information for people,” Ayala said. “We will need a national crusade in the media to transmit this message to think about the food you are eating and to do physical exercise. If the government doesn’t use the media to try to solve this problem, there will be no good results.”