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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkHealth & Beauty | November 2005 

Obesity Rates on the Rise in Mexico
email this pageprint this pageemail usWire services/El Universal

A doctor treats an obese patient. US researchers have discovered a new hormone that suppresses appetite in laboratory rats, offering hope for the development of an anti-obesity drug. (AFP/Liu Jin)
Mexico probably will surpass the United States in obesity rates for the first time next year as the nation adopts the fast food and sedentary lifestyles of its neighbor to the north. The brewing health crisis prompted Congress this month to move toward making school exercise mandatory. Mexico City has called in a Texas doctor to wean kids off pizza and fries, while Health Ministry ads warn fat can lead to diabetes and heart disease.

"Obese and overweight adults went from nowhere in 1990 to 62 percent in 2000," said Barry Popkin, an economist and nutrition professor at the University of North CarolinaChapel Hill, citing a Mexican government study. "You are talking about an astronomical increase coming at a very fast rate and it's continuing."

Weight-related illnesses pose a growing threat to Latin America's second-largest economy, said Juan Rivera, who's leading Mexico's second national obesity study at the National Institute of Public Health, due in 2006. Diabetes alone, the most common disease associated with excess weight, cost the nation as much as US15.1 billion in 2000, mostly in reduced productivity and lost wages because of premature death, according to a World Health Organization estimate.

A report this year by the Parisbased Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development compared obesity rates among OECD member nations. Only the United States, where 66 percent of people are overweight or obese, ranks higher than Mexico, the group reported, using the 2000 data from Mexico and 2002 numbers from the United States.

"The causes of death in Mexico have changed from infectious to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular illnesses and diabetes," said José Ángel Córdova Villalobos, president of the Congressional Heath Committee. "In most cases these diseases share the common cause of obesity."

Incomes in Mexico have grown as the economy expands. Gross domestic product rose 3.3 percent in the third quarter from the same period a year ago. Average salaries, in inflation-adjusted terms, have climbed to 188.74 pesos (US17.80) per day from 146.19 pesos per day four years ago.

Mexicans' growing weight is largely a byproduct of rising consumer spending aided by U.S. free trade, said Rivera, a nutritionist. A North American lifestyle that features cars and television accounts for much of that, he said. At the same time, the spread of fast food and soft-drink consumption in place of traditional beans and tortillas has paralleled the typical waistline expansion, he said.

The first Mexican franchise of Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald's Corp. opened in 1985 and there are now 304 outlets, according to the company's Web site. Miami-based Burger King's first restaurant opened in 1991 and has 260 sites. Louisville, Kentucky-based Yum! Brands, Inc., which operates Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC franchises, had 467 restaurants in Mexico at the end of 2004, according to a company report.

Fast-food restaurants in the United States deny their products directly cause obesity or health problems.

"Holding restaurants and food companies legally responsible for choices all of us freely make each day such as what to eat, when to eat and how much to eat, is irrational," Steven Anderson, chief executive of the Washington-based National Restaurant Association, said in a statement.

Mexico is the world's leading per-capita consumer of Coca Cola, according to the World Health Organization. In 1998 Mexicans drank more than 400 milliliters per day of the Coca- Cola Co. soft drink, according to a report by the organization, up from 275 milliliters in 1992.

"Drinking water to quench thirst in Mexico is very rare," said Rivera of the National Institute of Public Health. About 95 percent of the nation's schools don't offer access to free water, he said.

"So what does a child do?" Rivera said. "He goes to the school store and sees that a soft drink costs the same or a little less than a bottle of water."

A government study of income and spending showed Mexicans, whose traditional diet is based on corn and beans, spent 29.3 percent less on fruits and vegetables in 1998 than in 1984. In the same period, soft drink purchases increased 37.2 percent.

Researchers conducting the nation's second study on obesity, due to be published next year, said the percentage of obese and overweight Mexicans probably rose as high as 85 percent of women and 75 percent of men possibly the highest rates of any major economy.

The sole national study in Mexico that tracked weight gain over time looked at only women between the ages of 18 and 49. It found 59.6 percent were overweight or obese in 1999 compared with 33.4 percent in 1988.

In addition to eating more calories and fat, the average Mexican is exercising less, said Lupe Aguilar, head of physical education for the capital's public schools. Children and adults have cut back on walking and other outdoor activities, a trend reinforced by the rising crime rate, she said. Nine of 10 Mexico City residents polled in July by Consulta Mitofsky ranked security as the city's No. 1 problem.

"We can't expect a parent to tell their children to go play in a park," Aguilar said. "We are now worried that physical activity is only happening in the school."

Aguilar is implementing a new exercise and education program in the city. The regimen, approved this month by the lower house of congress and sent to the senate, would require that students exercise before classes.

Schools in Mexico City already asked San Antonio physician Robert Trevino for help getting students to slim down. Trevino started a bi-lingual program used in more than 200 South Texas elementary schools that combines nutrition education with exercise requirements.

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