Obesity rates continue to rise throughout the world. Sedentary lifestyles and processed diets lead to weight gain for adults and children alike. However, this global health epidemic hits especially close to home for Mexicans. Today in Mexico, nearly 1 in 3 adults are obese, and the statistic could get even more staggering in the years to come.
According to a monthly obesity update by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 18% of all adults are obese, but more than a third of all adults in Mexico are obese. In fact, the United States has an infamous obesity epidemic, but Mexico actually surpassed its northern neighbor in 2013, and has one of the world’s highest obesity rates.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Mexico ranks at the top of the western hemisphere with an obesity rate of 32.8%. Because obesity is a disease that makes other diseases more likely, healthcare costs and other expenses have skyrocketed alongside increasing obesity rates. This means Mexico and its citizens are absorbing a bigger economic burden than ever before, and the high cost of obesity will only continue to increase for all Mexicans if steps are not taken to stop it.
How Mexico got here
So, what set the stage for the obesity epidemic in Mexico? It’s impossible to pinpoint a single cause, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reflect on past changes, identify problematic trends, and work toward solutions. For example, as we learn more about the diets, lifestyles, and health conditions of Mexico’s current adult population, it’s clear that obesity has become a crisis because of a few main changes.
• Greed and global influences
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) altered the Mexican economy forever in 1994, but it also altered Mexican bodies by introducing food products from the United States. The WorldWatch Institute confirmed the connection between trade policies and obesity, which increased in Mexico alongside a demand for processed, underpriced food.
Unfortunately, competitive pricing for unhealthy food is more likely to affect those with less money. These consumers are also less likely to afford the high treatment costs for obesity-related conditions. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) documented this phenomenon in Salud Pública de México, showing that nutritionally dense food is more expensive in Mexico, while nutritionally insufficient food is more affordable and accessible.
• More comfortable lifestyles
Of course, class affects diet in many different ways, so Mexico’s low-income communities aren’t the only neighborhoods affected by rising obesity rates. Wealth has also led to more sedentary lifestyles in Mexico. One Public Health Nutrition study showed that urban communities require less activity and exercise than rural areas.
As more Mexicans move into dense urban communities and enjoy access to supermarkets, convenience stores, and various transportation options, the average adult will burn fewer calories than they consume. This is a formula that often results in obesity, and it’s important to make up for sedentary habits with exercise.
The price of obesity in Mexico
The physical consequences of obesity can be fatal, but the economic impact is very real too, and it’s important for every Mexican to understand why. While obesity affects fertility, mobility, cancer risks, heart health, and more, it also comes with a variety of financial requirements and surprises.
1. Individual healthcare costs
Obesity has many consequences and costs, but according to the World Health Organization, obesity is most expensive because of the healthcare costs associated with it. Obese people spend 77% more than others on medication and 36% more on healthcare costs in general.
2. National healthcare costs
The economic toll on Mexico is also significant. Public Health Nutrition found that by 2050, obesity-related diseases (including 12 million cases of diabetes and 8 million heart disease) could cost Mexico up to $7 billion every year. It doesn’t help that the majority of Mexicans lack major medical insurance coverage, or that increasing obesity rates have also increased demand and inflated medical costs.
Unfortunately, because the number of private hospitals is limited and the demand for obesity-related healthcare is high, many obese adults must depend on public health services to treat their heart disease, diabetes, and other consequences of obesity. In fact, the majority of Mexico’s healthcare budget is now dedicated to treating obesity, rather than preventing it or providing other public health services.
3. Business expenses and lost productivity
Obesity also costs the Mexican economy in the form of lost hours and inefficient work. According to a study in Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy, the American obesity epidemic has already caused a loss of productivity in the American workplace, with the disease leading to premature mortality, increased disability payments, and millions in absentee costs alone.
In Mexico, overweight and obese employees are more likely to have health conditions that make them less productive employees. Missing work for healthcare treatments and disability reasons will cost employers, but the ultimate costs come from premature death.
Solutions for the obesity epidemic
With so many costs and risks associated with obesity, how do we tackle the problem once and for all? Fortunately, there are many ways to save money, save lives, and prevent obesity rates from continuing to increase. Some are already in action today.
1. Sugar and soda taxes
Mexico is still the largest Coca-Cola consumer per capita, but sugary soda plays such a significant role in obesity that the Mexican government has actually struck back against soda companies that looked to take advantage of post-NAFTA opportunities. Mexico imposed a soda tax to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks, which has been explored as an example of success for other nations.
In just one year since the tax was implemented in 2014, there was a 6% decrease in the volume of soda sold and taxed in Mexico. Although soda companies have increased marketing efforts, the initiative is expected to further decrease soda consumption in the years to come.
2. Exercise incentives
In the United States, First Lady Michelle Obama has spent years fighting childhood obesity with programs that encourage better nutrition and more frequent exercise. In Mexico, similar efforts are starting to pay off for the adult population, but we still have a long way to go.
For example, the government installed 30 motion-sensing machines that dispense free subway tickets in exchange for a series of ten squats. Physical fitness is an important part of Mexico’s public health policy, and if promotions like this one actually increase activity, it could pay off by reducing future healthcare costs.
3. National agreements
Of course, the best way to curb obesity is to prevent it from happening. Prevention revolves around education, so it’s no surprise that outreach and awareness are the primary public health strategies outlined in Mexico’s National Agreement for Nutritional Health. This agreement is a promising step forward for Mexico, where children and adults need better access to high-quality healthcare services and nutritionally dense food in order to prevent obesity.
The fight against obesity in Mexico
Obesity affects every country, and it’s an issue that every country needs to work together to fight. Though globalization and its consequences are inevitable, we can learn to adapt to a changing world without increasing our collective risks.
Mexico is one country that is making an effort to fight obesity nationwide. In doing so, it works to prevent the loss of billions in productivity costs and preventable healthcare expenses. Not to mention, making sure every citizen has a chance at a healthy life.