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.
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In Mexico, the government is taking action. Under the administration of President Felipe Calderón, it signed the Obesity Prevention Strategy, which, among other things, banned sodas from schools and removed most high-sugar and fatty foods. The government also shifted from whole to 1.5 percent milk for government programs.Skip to next paragraph
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But Juan Rivera, director of the Center for Research in Nutrition and Health at Mexico's National Institute for Public Health, says that public awareness with the help of the media has probably had the biggest impact.
Recently, the secretary of health turned to the well-loved figures of Mexican wrestling, called lucha libre , who are leading a program called "Wrestling Against Obesity." (See story here.)
At the popular matches, information booths about good eating habits and disease prevention will be set up through November to help orient Mexicans toward a healthier lifestyle.
"The level of awareness of people about obesity and problems associated with it is higher," says Dr. Rivera. "There was not a single day in the last six years when you did not see news in Mexico about obesity." He says that preliminary results from the 2012 national nutrition survey, not yet published, show a halting in the accelerated rates of obesity logged over the past 20 years.
Chile has also tried to aggressively address its obesity epidemic, passing a law July 6 requiring that high-salt and high-calorie foods be labeled as such, for example. The law also makes it illegal to give out samples of such food to children, sell them at schools, or advertise them to kids. Schools, which sometimes keep students at the same desk all day, will have to provide physical activity and sports.
Francisco Mardones, a professor of public health at the Pontifical Catholic University in Santiago, says the government is also paying attention to prevention. For example, studies show that obesity is a bigger problem for children who are breastfed for less than six months. He says Chile's extension of maternal leave to six months, passed this year, is an "important" part of the solution. In addition, the new food law requires infant formula to be labeled with a notice about the superiority of breastfeeding.
But Chile and Mexico, along with some efforts in Brazil, stand alone in aggressively tackling the issue in this region, says Dr. Popkin. "It is starting to get attention," he says, "but generally speaking the food industry is just too big and powerful."
And even where politicians have directly tried to take on industry, they haven't gotten far. In Chile, for example, the new law won't translate immediately into new corporate policies.
"The sale of food specially oriented toward children may not be brought about through commercial hooks unrelated to the promotion of the product itself, such as gifts, contests, games, or other elements that attract children," the law reads.
But "commercial hooks" remains to be defined. The rule that will convert this law into enforceable specifics has yet to be issued, Girardi's lawsuit against fast-food companies notwithstanding. For now, restaurants continue to give out toys.
If the government's goal is to get kids to eat healthier food, they might have an ally among the 3-year-old set. Entering a McDonald's in downtown Santiago, Yesenia Mardones says her son Nicolas wants a Happy Meal for the toy. And the food? "He only eats one or two fries," she says. "And the apple."