Historically Mexico and Chile have been synonymous with vacations and adventure, but now a third and less exciting commonality presents itself: obesity. Recent global research studies indicate these nations can now count themselves amongst countries with the highest obesity rates in the world. Why?
Obesity in Mexico and Chile
Both Chile and Mexico experienced great change at the hands of sweeping economic developments within the last 30-40 years.
Chile’s economic history is fascinating, to say the least, but for the purpose of this article let’s focus on the present day. The country managed to transition to a relatively stable democracy in the 90’s, but instances of income inequality remain high. In spite of this, the Nation has demonstrated its commitment to changing for the better through strong policy reforms yielding relatively good results.
Poverty rates in Chile decreased from 45% in 1987 to roughly 14.4% as of 2013. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, malnutrition rates among children six years old or younger decreased from a shocking 37% to just 2.9% between 1960-2000. But with all its success in wrangling its economy, Chile remains in dire straits with regards to its burgeoning obese population. Today more than 1 in 4 adults are obese in Chile, and the obesity rate among young children stands at 20% with the poor and uneducated bearing the brunt of the consequences.
Mexico is the 11th most populated country in the world yet is outranked only by the United States in terms of its obesity rates. The urban population dramatically increased between 1965 and 2000 and is estimated to be representative of around 80% of the total population by 2050. More people in more cities can be good, but this urban growth has helped foster some startling economic inequality. The CIA’s World Factbook details 46% of Mexico’s population lives below the poverty line with regards to food-based needs.
How Did We Get to Now?
Both countries experienced varied levels of globalization “booms” that brought about food changes for their populations. Increasing global food marketing and promotion mean there are more and cheaper food options available. People are able to consume without much regard to their food sourcing or its nutritional value. As the Food and Agriculture Organization implies, these new conditions inspire “increased consumption of brand-name processed and store-bought food, an increased number of meals eaten outside the home and consumer behaviors driven by the appeal of new foods available.”
In the current state of things, these countries are taking a page right out of the U.S. playbook as large amounts of people move away from healthier diets consisting of whole grains and vegetables towards processed foods, a process global health researchers call nutrition transition. In highly urbanized Chile this means more shopping at supermarkets and eating take-out. Mexico is now home to a two-headed monster of malnutrition in the rural areas and obesity in the urban areas. Both exemplify cautionary tales for dietary shifts in developing countries.
The question is now one of access vs. availability. Though globalization brought more food availability overall to both Chile and Mexico, the diet development in these countries looks much more uneven. In both places, foods with scant Micronutrients and artificial ingredients are more accessible for the poor while nutrient-dense healthy food is more practically available for the wealthy.
How Do We End This? What Are People Doing to Fight it?
Chile’s Health Ministry introduced compulsory front of pack food labeling in 2016 and also has laws in place banning the sale of foods high in sugar and fat to children in schools. The pioneering laws also tackle advertisements for such foods, mostly protecting children under the age of 14.
Mexico has taken similar steps to protect its youth from overwhelming exposure to unhealthy food advertising and has even extended its restrictions to films. The country also famously put a close to 10% nationwide tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in place a couple of years ago and saw initial drops in cases of type 2 diabetes.
Though not in the top group of countries with dangerously expanding waistlines, France recently adopted market-tested NutriScore food labeling to assist people in making better food choices. The straightforward system uses color codes to give buyers an at-a-glance view of the total nutrient content of their purchase. To topple pillars of support for global obesity including ignorance and unhealthy food promotions, voices like Professor Serge Herberg’s, NutriScore developer, should be heard around the world.
“Manufacturers who have strongly demanded scientific demonstrations of the impact of this logo, which are available today on the basis of several studies, must now accept the rules of the game that they themselves demanded.”
Time will tell if the legislation and other efforts put forth by these countries can positively impact their obesity rates, but if current trends continue, we may be witnessing a disturbing new standard for dietary habits worldwide.