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Many Brazilians going hungry, but obesity also becoming a problem

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil—Diva Jose Vieira was excited when she learned that a new Brazilian television reality show will house 12 fat people for 10 weeks surrounded by their favorite foods.

The upcoming show has attracted more than 30,000 applicants, one more sign that Brazil—which revels in its image as the home of the "Girl From Ipanema," as the song goes—increasingly is worrying about its collective weight.

Whoever loses the most weight on the show will win $110,000, a fortune in a country in which the monthly minimum wage is less than $100.

The 42-year-old Vieira would be an ideal contestant; She stands only 5 feet 2 but tips the scales at 265 pounds. The street cleaner balked at applying, however, when she learned she'd have to submit a photo of herself in a bikini.

"I was too embarrassed to do that," Vieira said, sitting on the couch in her shantytown home.

Thanks to an increase in the consumption of sugar, soft drinks and fatty foods, 40 percent of Brazilian older than 20—38.8 million people—are overweight, according to a new government report. Ten and a half million are obese, the government found. Only 4 percent, 3.8 million, are below normal weight.

The problem isn't just one of looks. A second government report found that nearly 10 times as many Brazilians died in 2003 from obesity-related diseases—such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes—than from malnutrition, which long has been the subject of government campaigns.

"Maybe they ought to begin a Zero Fat campaign," said Roberto da Matta, a Rio sociologist, playing off the government's Zero Hunger program.

The issue is sensitive in Brazil. Hunger is still a huge problem, and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who created the Zero Hunger campaign, reacted to the overweight report by saying its results were misleading.

"Hunger isn't something to be measured by research," said Silva, who himself went without food at times as a child. "Not everyone wants to recognize that they are going hungry. They are ashamed."

Jose Mauro, a researcher with the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute, said 14 percent of Brazilians in the same survey said they usually didn't get enough to eat, and 32.8 percent said they sometimes didn't get enough to eat.

Nonetheless, no one is questioning that Brazilians are getting fatter, a trend that Benjamin Caballero, a specialist at the Center for Human Nutrition at Johns Hopkins University, said was happening in developing countries worldwide, in large part because of the shift from rural to unhealthy urban living.

"The urban lifestyle is characterized by a lower daily energy expenditure on physical activity, due to the predominance of sedentary employment," Caballero wrote in a research paper he'll present next month in Brazil. "Mechanized transportation and automation in general also reduce energy expenditure of daily living."

Carla Silva de Carvalho, a 210-pound 15-year-old, offered a related explanation: "I eat a lot of junk food." Her favorite meal is rice, beans, french fries and steak. In a comment that would be familiar to mothers everywhere, Carla said she didn't like broccoli or spinach, two foods that nutritionists wish would become popular.

In a sign of the times in Brazil, the number of McDonald's restaurants—the whipping boy of the anti-fat crowd—has risen from 100 in 1992 to more than 1,200 today, although the Golden Arches here have begun serving salads, yogurt and other healthy food.

Patricia Hinrichsen said the results of the government report were disturbing. "Brazilians eat too much junk food," said Hinrichsen, a 35-year-old education consultant. "It's not healthy to be fat."

Hinrichsen was drinking watermelon juice and eating a sandwich at an Ipanema beach street cafe. Eating the sandwich made her feel guilty.

"I will run on the beach or bicycle later today," she said.

Leonor Pacheco, a consultant to the Ministry of Social Development and Anti-Hunger, said obesity in Brazil was particularly prevalent among poor women in urban areas. She blamed that on not enough exercise, too much time spent watching television and using the little money they have to buy packaged food and soft drinks.

"The diets of poor people are unbalanced," Pacheco said. "They use a lot of cooking oil, and they eat a lot of fried foods and sugar. We have children suffering from hunger and adults suffering from obesity. We have the worst of both worlds."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): brazil+fat

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