Supersized Brazil: Obesity a growing health threat

The successes of Brazil's new middle class – including greater access to jobs, technology, and rising purchasing power – could be the source of increased obesity, writes a guest blogger.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.

While the United States may reign supreme as one of the world's fattest countries, epidemiologists warn that the obesity epidemic is growing in developing countries and represents a new public health threat in countries like Brazil. Given a burgeoning middle class, an expanding food industry, and rising sedentarism, Brazil is experiencing an epidemic that has the potential to worsen in the coming years.

First, given the strength of the economy and a growing population of consumers – particularly the new middle class – fast food restaurants and food conglomerates are moving in or expanding in Brazil. Brazil already has nearly 700 McDonald's restaurants, along with chains like Burger King and KFC. In the past few months, several fast food companies announced they're entering the Brazilian market, including Johnny Rockets, due to open 30 restaurants, and Carl's Jr., due to open 100 restaurants. Coca Cola, which is hugely popular in Brazil, sold R$17.7 billion ($8.7 billion USD) worth of 10.6 billion liters of soft drinks there in 2010. Coca Cola Brasil grew by 6 percent in the second quarter of 2012. The company plans to invest over R$14 billion ($6.9 billion USD) in Brazil over the next five years. Pepsi – which also produces snack food – doubled its Brazil business from 2006 to 2010. The company plans to do a major investment push in Brazil's northeast, which has an important portion of Brazil's growing consumer class.

Brazil's obesity problem is something of a taboo topic. Larry Rohter was one of the first to cover the issue in the international media back in 2005, causing an outcry due to the fact that a foreign publication covered a sensitive issue, as well as the fact that the accompanying photo had mistakenly featured two European women. But since then, obesity become an increasingly salient problem. By 2010, a government-run survey showed that obesity had reached epidemic proportions in Brazil, indicating that 48 percent of adult women and 50 percent of adult men were overweight. An April 2012 study revealed that 15 percent of Brazilian adults are obese, while 52.6 percent of men and 44.7 percent of women are overweight. The University of the State of Rio de Janeiro released a report yesterday showing that obesity-related diseases cost the Brazilian government R$3.57 billion ($1.77 billion) per year.

One of the sources of the epidemic is the growth of the new middle class and the economic boom of recent years. With an all-time low unemployment rate and rising salaries, there's less time for exercise and more demand for fast food. Like in the United States, healthier foods tend to be more expensive. Access to places for exercise can be problematic; safe public spaces may not be accessible to poorer communities, while those who can afford to often join gyms. Government programs have done little to address obesity, and some believe that government anti-hunger programs may have actually helped feed the epidemic, as recipients of state funding have bought cheaper, unhealthier foods.

Another problem is the high level of sedentarism in Brazil. Only 15 percent of Brazilian adults are active in their free time. The Economist revealed a study this week that showed that Brazilians are among the most sedentary in the world – even more than Americans. Over 40 percent of Brazilian men and over 50 percent of Brazilian women get insufficient exercise, the study says. With record sales of cars, TVs, and computers, it's getting easier to avoid exercise. It's cruel irony, but the successes of Brazil's new middle class – including greater access to jobs, technology, and rising purchasing power – could also be the source of Brazilians' declining health.

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog

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