Mexico is on the road to surpassing the U.S. — as world's fattest country

Virginia Soriano, 35, said it's difficult teaching her daughter, Naomi, good eating habits when they are flooded with advertising for fatty foods.
Virginia Soriano, 35, said it's difficult teaching her daughter, Naomi, good eating habits when they are flooded with advertising for fatty foods. Franco Ordonez / Charlotte Observer / MCT

MEXICO CITY — Fueled by the rising popularity of soft drinks and fast-food restaurants, Mexico has become the second fattest nation in the world. Mexican health officials say it could surpass the U.S. as the most obese country within 10 years if trends continue.

More than 71 percent of Mexican women and 66 percent of Mexican men are overweight, according to the latest national surveys.

With diabetes now Mexico's leading cause of death, activists and leaders hope to renew efforts to crack down on junk food and other fatty-food consumption and encourage citizens to exercise more. But it will be a tough battle, as industry groups are expected to put up a fight.

No one knows better the country's affection for fattening foods than Lidia Garcia Garduno, who's run a fruit stand in central Mexico City for the past 10 years.

"People don't eat right anymore," said Garcia Garduno, mixing a drink of strawberries and pineapple. "Instead of coming here and purchasing a fruit drink, they prefer to walk across the street and buy fried pork chips. That's why so many Mexicans are obese."

In 1989, fewer than 10 percent of Mexican adults were overweight. No one in the country even talked about obesity back then, said Barry Popkin, a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor who studies global weight gain. Experts were too concerned with poverty and hunger.

"It certainly snuck up on them," said Popkin, who's working with the Mexican health ministry to develop strategies to address obesity throughout the country. "Mexico has probably had the most rapid increase of obesity in the last 15 years."

Mexican Health Secretary Jose Cordova, who launched a new health campaign Feb. 25, agrees: "We have to put the brakes on this obesity problem."

Some Mexicans say there's less space on an already crowded Mexico City subway because riders are getting larger. At a flea market in the south of the city, vendors hawk clothes brought from the United States made for overweight individuals.

Francisco Princegali knew he was eating too much junk food when he bent down last week and heard a tear.

"I ripped my pants because of the fat," said Princegali, who's 20, crumbling up a wrapper of sweetened bread he'd purchased from a vendor. "I think I'm addicted to junk food."

Princegali, sucking in his stomach, said that many of his pants were too tight these days. Some people are addicted to alcohol and smoking, he said: "My problem is I love fried chicken — Kentucky Fried Chicken."

As in the U.S., Mexicans are living more sedentary lives. Studies show that they're eating more fat and processed foods, and fewer whole grains and vegetables. Foods — healthy and unhealthy — that once were unavailable now can be purchased at new modern supermarkets. In some areas of the country, it's easier to get a soft drink than a clean glass of water. The vast majority of Mexico City's public schools, and many private schools, lack drinkable water, Popkin said.

The national study also found that a quarter of Mexican children ages 5 to 11 are too heavy, a 40 percent increase since 2000.

According to the government's National Institute of Public Health, the consumption of soft drinks increased 60 percent in Mexico over the last 14 years.

Last week, children lined up to purchase soft drinks and potato chips outside their school in the center of Mexico City.

Virginia Soriano, 35, said it was difficult teaching her children good eating habits when they were flooded with advertising for fatty foods. Naomi, her daughter, says her favorite things to eat are McDonald's Chicken McNuggets and Coca-Cola. The 6-year-old sometimes pushes away her dinner plate if it has too many vegetables, Soriano said.

"She'll say, 'This has no taste,' " Soriano said. "She wants McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken."

Legislators have considered putting warning labels on junk food and taxing whole milk to encourage consumption of skim milk. Past efforts, however, have foundered, and some lawmakers have reported difficulty fighting powerful industry groups. In 2006, legislators voted down a proposed tax on soft drinks, arguing that it discriminated against the poor. Leaders hope that the growing concern over diabetes will lead to greater public acceptance of such efforts.

PepsiCo joined the education ministry last year in launching a new health program, "Living Healthily," that encourages more daily exercise and better eating habits. But consumer group El Poder del Consumidor, "Power of the Consumer," has accused the company of surreptitiously marketing its products to children.

Monica Bauer, a spokeswoman for PepsiCo International, said that the program, which includes a video game that teaches healthy eating habits, didn't include any advertising.

"We understand there is an obesity problem," she said. "We're trying to be part of the solution."

The health consequences of obesity include increased rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. The Mexican Diabetes Federation estimates that 6.5 million to 10 million Mexicans have diabetes.

More than 70,000 Mexicans die each year from diabetes-related conditions, Cordova said. He said that the diabetes burden was draining Mexico's already strained health services and that if trends continued, the country's health-care system would be bankrupt within a decade.

"If we don't stop this, we're going to run out of money to treat the sick," Cordova said.

(Ordonez reports for The Charlotte Observer.)