Nestled in between some of Rio’s ubiquitous fitness centers are food stands selling snacks that are fried or covered in cheese. Butter-laden pastries and creamy pies occupy glass display cases, and sugary fruit juices chill in massive containers.
Rio’s women still wear their microscopic Brazilian bikinis, but today they’re often filled out by large midsections and more-than-ample hips and thighs. Men’s Speedos are topped off with jutting beer bellies.
In this country known for its beautiful bodies, the evidence is everywhere: Brazil is getting fat.
While still the breeding ground for supermodels and the showcase for cosmetic plastic surgery, Brazil’s fabled beaches are no longer the exclusive preserve of the tanned and fit. The toned and body-conscious are surrounded by the overweight as rising obesity rates alarm public health authorities.
It’s the “American tendency,” says Gloria Valeria da Veiga, a professor who specializes in obesity studies at the Institute of Nutrition at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Like other emerging economic powers, Brazil’s boom has spawned a consumer class now able to afford fast food and regular meals out. Especially in urban areas like Rio, Sao Paulo and Brasilia, busy schedules have meant less exercise and more pre-packed, salty and sugary foods. Traditional Brazilian fare like manioc root, sweet potatoes, fish and fruits have been replaced by giant portions of beef, potatoes and rice at restaurants.
“They don’t eat bananas,” Veiga says, “but they’ll eat cookies.”
Results of a 2008-09 study by the National Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics found that 33 percent of children ages 5 to 9 were classified as overweight while another 14 percent were obese, the next level up on the Body Mass Index scale. About 20 percent of Brazilian teenagers are overweight and 5 percent are obese; 50 percent of Brazilian adults are overweight, and 15 percent are obese.
While Brazil hasn’t reached the U.S. obesity rate – about 36 percent – Veiga said Brazilians increasingly are mimicking American patterns and could match the United States if habits don’t change.
In Rio, appearances can be deceiving. The city’s world-famous beaches and its ubiquitous gyms and workout centers still attract steady crowds of people jogging, bicycling and playing beach volleyball and soccer. But the geography and statistics institute study revealed that only 15 percent of adults are active in their free time. The situation is worse in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, where residents cannot afford gym memberships or healthy foods.
Brazilian teenagers’ weight increase has nearly tripled since the 1970s, Veiga says. Adults are experiencing a similar threefold weight increase, too, and the study indicates the problem afflicts all socioeconomic groups.
Concerned by the trend, public health authorities are fighting back. In Rio schools, snack bars are prohibited by law and soda, candy, cakes and greasy foods like French fries are banned from school cafeterias.
Some Brazilians are trying to make fitness equipment more available to the general public. In one tiny park near a subway station, bright green, all-weather workout equipment stands ready for anyone to use. People flock to the fitness equipment at all hours of the day to take advantage of a free workout.
Beach workouts are noticeably popular, too. On a spot of Flamengo beach, Felipe Marinho and a group of employees – all toned, tan and energetic – eagerly help passers-by try out an obstacle course that includes resistance bands, balance equipment, hula-hoops (laid on top of the sand for agility exercises) and mats for stretching and sit-ups.
“Aesthetics are secondary,” says Marinho, founder of the circuit, who studied physical education and sports training in school. He adds that the majority of gym-goers are concerned with sculpting their bodies simply to look good, but he wants his circuit to be used as a dynamic workout for cardiovascular health.
Other fitness trainers and experts in Rio are concerned with exercise habits. Tauska Santos, a fitness instructor and trainer at NBfit gym in Rio’s Ipanema neighborhood, says the strong fitness culture can motivate people to work out – but at the same time, many take it to the extreme.
“We’re very vain,” Santors says. “We have some obsessed clients.”
Santos describes the perfect Brazilian body – full breasts, a thin waist and toned buttocks and thighs for women; bulky arms and abdominal muscles for men. She emphasizes that Brazilian women don’t try to achieve the “scary skinny” physique that American women desire; rather, Brazilian women want to look toned and beach-ready.
“When you go to the beach, you feel very vulnerable,” Santos says. “We’re more likely to freak out about body image in Rio. There’s this kind of judgment about it.”
But Santos says that in recent years, she has noted a difference in the body types that show up to the chic fitness center.
“I’ve noticed that people have gained a lot of weight,” Santos says. “More people are working, and when we get too stressed, we release cortisol. The more cortisol you release, the more weight you gain – it’s a cycle.”
Though some of her clients are too preoccupied with the aesthetics benefit of working out, Santos says, many are aware of the health benefits of exercise.
“What you have to highlight is that the exercise shouldn’t be so obsessive,” Santos says. “We should aim for health first and the looks as a consequence.”