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Obesity weighing on America – Latin America, that is

The fattening of Latin America mirrors a global pattern that has left some 1.5 billion adults overweight. Now, from Mexico to Chile, it's triggering a political response.

By Steven BodzinCorrespondent, Sara Miller LlanaStaff writer / September 4, 2012

A boy eats a piece of a ‘megatorta’ in Mexico City, where cooks prepared a 170-foot-long torta to try to set a Mexican record.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP


Santiago, Chile; and Mexico City

It's a gloomy day in downtown Santiago, Chile. Men and women in dark clothes hustle down a pedestrian mall, rushing back to work as their lunch break ends. But for many children, the gray scene is pierced by a beacon: a local McDonald's restaurant with bright, wall-sized posters of ice-cream cones and hamburgers, a warm entryway, and especially the promise of children's meals with toys tucked inside.

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If Chilean Sen. Guido Girardi has his way, however, there will be no more "Ice Age" figurines or other cartoon-movie icons to tantalize tots. Senator Girardi filed a complaint Aug. 1 against McDonald's, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken for allegedly marketing to children using toys, and demanded that the nation's health ministry crack down on food manufacturers that use stickers, games, or other child-friendly paraphernalia to draw in the youngest consumers.

The move comes as Chile's waistline continues to expand. With a quarter of Chileans registering as obese, the Andean country's residents are now almost as overweight as the British, and quickly catching up to North Americans.

Recent studies show almost a quarter of first-graders in Chile are clinically obese, which means they have a body mass index (BMI) – their weight in kilograms divided by the square of their height in meters – of 30 or more.

Chile is not alone in Latin America. Mexico is vying with the United States for the distinction of being the world's heaviest nation, depending on which demographic is being studied. Only North America exceeds South America in terms of how heavy the population is. Even in Central America, where some countries are more associated with malnutrition, obesity rates are increasing.

The fattening of Latin America follows global patterns that have rendered 1.5 billion adults worldwide overweight or obese: Women are working outside the home, free trade has meant easy access to processed foods and sweetened beverages, jobs are more sedentary, and kids have moved from the soccer field to the television set. And with incomes rising in low- and middle-income countries, obesity is something that developing-world politicians will increasingly have to battle as food and beverage manufacturers eye new markets.

"There is an increased push by global food companies," says Barry Popkin, a global nutrition expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Because of growing incomes in Brazil and all the growth in China," he cites as two examples, "they are putting their efforts there now."

Mexico saw one of the quickest increases in obesity rates in the world between 1990 and 2010.

A diet that used to be based on corn and beans, flavored with tomatoes and peppers from the fields, is now increasingly industrially packaged. Fried food is everywhere, with the prices of cooking oils way down. At almost any time of the day, children and adults alike snack on everything from supersize juices to cobs of corn smothered in mayonnaise. Coca-Cola is gulped in vast quantities: Mexico is the biggest consumer of the soda on the planet.

According to Mexican government statistics, 70 percent of Mexican adults are overweight or obese (29 percent of that tally are obese). More than one-quarter of children ages 5 to 11 are overweight. Forty percent of children and adolescents do not exercise. The difference between an overweight and obese BMI is a jump from 25 to 30 on the index.

Though obesity has historically been higher in the developed world, studies have shown that obesity rates in Latin America have exceeded those in many developed countries, says Jason Nagata, a medical student at the University of California, San Francisco who has conducted obesity research in Guatemala.

In this Central American country, which has had one of the highest rates of malnutrition for children in the world, the prevalence of residents who are overweight or obese increased from 34 percent in 1995 to 45 percent in 2002.


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