Plight of Obesity Weighs Heavy on Latin American Society
By Emy Gelb

Boy-with-milkshake-for-WebOver the past three decades, children in Latin America have joined a global trend in increasing obesity and overweight levels. Since 1980, the obesity level has tripled in Mexico, and rates are rising in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and other countries in the region.

The rising rates for obesity and overweight children are alarming, and pose a serious threat to Latin American society. Governments as well as public and private groups are getting involved in the fight against childhood obesity, and it is a top priority for the Pan American Health and Education Foundation (PAHEF)

An Expanding Pandemic

Obesity is increasing for a variety of social, political, and cultural reasons. Large-scale urbanization throughout the region is propelling economic growth, modernization, and globalization. Quick on the heels of all this progress is a health pandemic. Expanding incomes and shrinking urban spaces have created a culture of caloric fast food diets and sedentary lifestyles.

In Argentina in 2005, youth consumed 353 million liters of soda, more than a 20 percent increase from the year before. In Mexico, only 35 percent of people aged 10 to 19 consider themselves to be physically active. To make matters worse, 22 percent of Mexican television advertisements are food-oriented and geared towards children. The region’s obesity rates are soaring, which translates into real health problems for children in Latin America. For instance, impaired glucose tolerance and insulin resistance has been reported in obese children in Costa Rica.

The Price to Pay for Progress
The consequences of obesity are grave. Obesity and overweight are directly linked to chronic diseases like diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, certain types of cancer, and cardiovascular disease—all serious killers throughout Latin America.

It is more difficult for overweight children to catch their breath—literally. A 2009 study of 13 – 14-year-old adolescents in Rio de Janeiro uncovered that overweight girls were more likely to suffer from asthma than their trim counterparts. 

Obesity does not only affect individuals, it attacks entire societies. Public health, social security, economic viability, and social stability are all put at risk by obesity’s implications, especially in the poorest sectors of society. It is predicted that by 2017, Mexico will be spending a more than US$11.9 million annually on issues related directly or indirectly to obesity.

Fighting Back
A collection of players is getting involved in the fight against childhood obesity. Parents, the food industry, schools, urban planners, NGOs, and governments are working together to create healthier environments to raise future generations. Among them, the Pan American Health and Education Foundation (PAHEF) is taking an active role in ending the trend.

For several years, combating childhood obesity has been a top priority for PAHEF. The foundation has funded a variety of sustainable projects targeting young people to make healthy food choices and engage in physical activity. Projects have been carried out in Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico, Guatemala, and Trinidad & Tobago. 

PAHEF’s work, along with crucial cooperation from other key actors such as governments, schools, and parents, is stopping the rise of childhood obesity and protecting future generations of Latin America. 

The reversal of an epidemic is not easy, but that does not mean it is impossible. It will require attitude and behavior change on an epic scale, meaning early interventions with children will be key to ensuring they become healthy adults.

A Sample of Recent PAHEF Projects in the Region