Globesity En Español

By Hearn, Kelly | In These Times, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Globesity En Español


Hearn, Kelly, In These Times


Latin America fights the battle of the bulge

LIKE HER FRIENDS FROM Mexico to Chile, the girl from Ipanema is getting too big for her britches.

Latin America has fallen prey to the "globesity" trend, adding to the ranks of the one billion people the World Health Organization (WHO) says are overweight around the world. Globalization, with its accompanying sedentary lifestyles and proliferation of fast-food conglomerates, is a major culprit. As a 2001 study by Ricardo Uauy, a researcher at the University of Chile's Institute of Nutrition and Food Technology, noted, "as income increases in transitional countries, so does the consumption of high fat foods, including industrially processed hydrogenated fats." Globesity's spread is bad news for struggling countries with stressed health systems that will have to tend to fat's future fallout, from diabetes to heart problems.

Policymakers' responses have been mixed, from introducing legislation to criticizing global corporations to denying the problem altogether.

Mexico has adopted national legislation to fight the problem. In figure-obsessed Argentina, where 30 percent of the population is estimated to be dieting on any given day, an obesity law is awaiting a Senate vote. But fat's real Latin American enemy appears be Chile.

With strong trade ties to the United States, Chile has logged South America's most sustained growth in recent years. And it's not just mirroring Washington's preference for trade liberalization, open markets and tax policy, but Americans' expanding figure as well: The Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley predicts that 9 million Chileans will be obese by 2010.

Politicians like Chilean Congressman Fulvio Rossi are lashing back at bulge. In tandem with a decade-long anti-obesity program started in 2000 by the Chilean government, he has proposed a junk food tax and measures to give school kids more time for physical activity. He is also targeting la comida chatarra, or junk food. In a February 8 interview with a leading Chilean newspaper, Rossi lashed out at McDonald's new nutritional guidelines.

"Unfortunately, McDonald's is engaging in false advertising," Rossi said. "They are saying in their nutritional information that the caloric requirements of minors are larger than what they really are to justify the consumption of hamburgers."

The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics also caused a stir last year by reporting that just over 40 percent of adult Brazilians are overweight, and that one in 10 adults is obese. Against a backdrop of globalization this news may not be all that surprising: Carlos Augusto Monteiro, a nutritionist at the University of São Paulo, has reported that soft drink consumption in that country has shot up 400 percent in the last 30 years. Demographic shifts mean more sedentary lifestyles for more Brazilians; between 1940 and 2000, the country's population, now 175 million, went from being 80 percent rural and 20 percent urban to 80 percent urban and 20 percent rural.

So what is the corrective?

Laws mandating public education are designed to teach the newly globalized how to eat well and resist sedentary ways. But obesity can be a complicated political football. Last January, for example, Brazil's President Lula da Silva dismissed obesity figures because he draws political clout from a public battle against poverty and food insecurity. According to a New York Times article, da Silva claimed that the study was likely skewed because the subjects did not report accurately. "Hunger isn't something to be measured by research," da Silva said. "Not everyone wants to recognize that they are going hungry. They are ashamed."

Another worrisome trend is that policy types in Latin America, just like their counterparts in the United States, may be relying too much on information generated by the very industries causing the obesity problem. …

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