Mexico Just Beat the U.S. At Something Huge

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) released troubling findings this week indicating that the United States is no longer in the lead for the most obese nation on earth. Obesity, it turns out, is not in a significant decline in the U.S., but is undergoing a major boom in Mexico, raising concern for a host of implications for the population's health and economic well being.

Around 70% of Mexican adults are now classified as "overweight," a major increase from past years. In 1989, fewer than 10% of Mexican adults were reported to face weight issues. 

Increasing urbanization, shifts from fresh to processed foods, and more sedentary lifestyles are some major factors believed to be contributing to unprecedented obesity levels in the country. The same factors, experts claim, are contributing to similarly high rates across the globe from the U.S. to Venezuela to Libya.

While Mexico tops the list of obese-populated countries, smaller nations excluded from UN FAO rankings such as American Samoa (where reports find cases of overweight adults may be as high as 95%) could top already shocking levels identified in places like the U.S. and Mexico.

Today over 32.8% of Mexican adults are reported as "obese," a figure just overtaking the United States' current obesity rate by one percent. Increases in obesity levels in Mexico are already contributing to major health implications, such as a sudden rise in diabetes, a disease now affecting one in six Mexican adults. The disease killed around 70,000 people last year in Mexico, a figure CBS News compares to be more than the number of deaths said to have been caused by six years of the country's gangland drug wars

The young and the poor are often most affected by obesity, and Mexico, a country where more than 50% of the population is considered poor, is certainly facing difficult challenges in managing the crisis. Health care for those affected by diseases related to weight problems can be a drain on the Mexican economy, just as access to adequate funds to buy healthy foods is a major cause for obesity in the first place.

"The same people who are malnourished are the ones who are becoming obese," physician Abelardo Avila of Mexico's National Nutrition Institute has explained. This convergence of health issues is particularly troubling to those facing myriad health concerns that can stem from lack of access to fresh, unprocessed foods. 

Although sudden spikes leading to Mexico's top spot in today's world obesity rankings are shocking to many, for some the recent boom is no surprise. Global health experts have been keeping an eye on the country for several years. In 2011, UN official Olivier de Shutter said in a report on Mexican agriculture and nutrition that "For many Mexicans, particularly in urban areas or in northern states, switching to healthier diets is becoming increasingly difficult."

While some have been quick to blame traditional Mexican foods — including the "Three Ts" of tacos, tostadas, and tamales — the fact is that while such dishes have been staples in the Mexican diet for years, growing prevalence of international fast food chains (including an increasing number of such U.S. businesses) is more likely to blame. 

Last year, reports began to circulate that obesity levels among poor children in major American cities may be on the decline. Healthy food programs contributing both funding and increased access to information about healthy choices, some suggest, have been helping contribute to some success among America's at-risk youths and provide some hope to curb America's obesity rate in coming years.

The hope remains that similar programs targeting Mexican youths may be able to combat some of the factors driving obesity rates up in America's southern neighbor. But with alarmingly high rates reported in countries across cultures, geographies, and economies in the UN's most recent State of Food and Agriculture Report, it remains clear that the issue is indeed a global crisis that merits real concern across a vast range of populations. Clearly, America should not rejoice in no longer standing as the most obese country. As the U.S. and Mexico closely top this year's list, attention to innovative, effective solutions to the obesity problem should stand as national priorities in both cases.

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Rachel George

Rachel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She holds a BA in Politics from Princeton and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. Her interests include journalism, U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and international law.

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