Mention the country of Mexico, and odds are, the first area of concern that comes to mind is the raging drug war. But Mexicans are facing a new and growing crisis, one that has claimed four times as many lives as the drug wars. You might be surprised, though, especially if you learned that the enemy could very well be a big cup of icy cold Coke.
Obesity was virtually unheard of in Mexico a short 30 years ago, but the changing times have created a different face for the country. A recent study, published by CNN.com, shows that Mexico has surpassed the United States as the country with the highest level of obesity. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that 69.5 percent of the Mexican population aged 15 and older is overweight or obese.
The United Kingdom was ranked first for the European countries.
Similar to the U.S., the obesity levels are high in the very youngest of age groups. Four-and-a-half million children between the ages of five and 11 are overweight. The Mexican government has noticed the crisis and in 2010 instituted an initiative urging its citizens to drink more water, increase their fruit and vegetable intake and get more exercise. Many school districts have jumped on board and outlawed junk food inside their doors. The rest of the city has been slow to follow, though, and many parents report that their children can purchase junk food as soon as they leave the school grounds.
Mexico’s Institute for Public Health reports that the number of overweight or obese school-aged children has shown a sharp increase in rate from 18.4 percent in 1999 to more than 26 percent in 2006. The Institute also points out that diabetes is now the leading cause of death in Mexico. The report shows one bit of data that may prove the main reason for the increase in obesity – school age children now get at least one-fifth of their daily caloric intake from high sugar drinks, such as soda. Part of this is due to the fact that many children don’t have access to clean drinking water. In its place, many of them choose soda, which is often cheaper. Mexicans, on average, report drinking in excess of 42 gallons of sugar-sweetened sodas per year – just shy of one gallon per week; and Mexico is the world’s leading per capita consumer of Coca-Cola.
Another reason for increased obesity rates is the “Americanization” of Mexico. The first McDonald’s opened in 1985, and there are now more than 300 of the hamburger chains. Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC have had similar rates of expansion. Many traditional Mexican foods have been shunned in favor of Western favorites, like instant soups, potato chips and noodles. As the economy in Mexico has improved, and families enjoy a larger income, they spend less time eating at home and more time eating at restaurants, with larger portion sizes of more fat-laden foods.
One additional contributing factor to the nation’s rapid weight gain is the growing security problem. Nine of ten residents of Mexico City rate security as their number one concern, and it can be difficult for a parent to allow their child the freedom to run and exercise while they are worried about the skyrocketing crime rate.
The rise in obesity rates affects every single aspect of daily Mexican living, even including clothing manufacturers. Many companies report an increase in sales of larger size garments, with a minimal request for smaller sizes. Excess weight costs the country $5.5 billion each year in treating those with obesity related illnesses, and if obesity prevention programs were followed appropriately, it is estimated that as many as 47,000 deaths could be prevented each and every year.