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Mexico’s NAFTA Generation Faces Morbid Obesity

New America Media, Commentary, Louis E.V. Nevaer Posted: Jul 16, 2009

Editor's Note: Mexico now has the second highest incidence of morbid obesity in the world, behind the United States. The culprit is NAFTA, writes NAM contributor Louis E.V. Nevaer.

MERIDA, Mexico -– In less than a generation, Mexicans have gone from a nation of relatively healthy people to a nation confronting an unprecedented health crisis: morbid obesity. The culprit? The NAFTA diet.

Before the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, in 1994, Mexicans had a wholesome diet consisting of beans, tortillas, chicken and fruits and vegetables. These were prepared at home or in small restaurants called “fondas” (market stalls) by street vendors. Almost always, these meals were “slow food” -– soups, tacos, sauces and regional dishes were made from fresh ingredients, and prepared over the course of several hours.

In the 15 years since NAFTA, however, Mexico has been “invaded” by globalized, highly processed foods served by such fast-food conglomerates as McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.

The health crisis confronting Mexico is the rapid escalation in morbid obesity throughout society, affecting every demographic group in the nation, even the poorest.

A survey by Mexico’s health ministry revealed that one in four Mexican children between the ages of five and 11 is morbidly obese.

In a recent study, “Obesity: The Epidemic of the 21st Century,” health researcher Federico Siguero argues that “obesity is the most frequent illness among (Mexican) children, followed by diabetes.

“If this trend continues, there will be no government (administration) that will have the resources to treat all of the obese (Mexicans), who will suffer from diabetes, hypertension or another complication,” he stated.

This is reaffirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO), which now labels Mexico the nation with the second highest incidence of morbid obesity in the world, behind the United States. “Risk factors such as being overweight and obesity have increased (in Mexico) in all groups of society, mainly in urban areas, affecting 51.8 percent of women between the ages of 12 and 49 (60 percent in the northern part of the country) and 5.5 percent of children under five,” the WHO reported in its current country profile for Mexico.

The public health crisis precipitated by the change in the Mexican diet is causing alarm among politicians. Mexico is confronting an unprecedented strain on its national health system. Since NAFTA, “there’s been a greater consumption in fats, fried foods, carbonated soft drinks and fruit drinks that contain high levels of sugar,” Tomas Gloria Requena, a deputy in Mexico’s Congress, complained.

“The lifestyle changes –- in both food, level of stress and decreased physical activity, all part of Mexico’s transition to a ‘global economic integration’ are responsible for changes that are detrimental to the health of the Mexican population,” Enrique Salazar, a health care provider, noted. “According to the WHO, 67.9 percent of Mexican men and 68.4 percent of Mexican women are overweight.”

By comparison, 72.6 percent of American men and 75.6 percent of American women are overweight.

Many Mexicans blame global conglomerates, and the failing of their own government for contributing to the health crisis. “In many rural communities," Salazar added, "the government does not provide potable drinking water in the schools, and as a result, children end up drinking soft drinks instead.”

Mexicans drink more soft drinks per capita than any other people in the world, except for Americans.

“We must reduce the number of soft drinks consumed by children and at-risk adults,” added Jorge Quintero Bello, a legislator from the conservative PAN party. “IMSS (Mexico’s Health Ministry) must launch a comprehensive public education campaign.”

The change in the Mexican diet, however, is only one part of a complicated equation. In the course of implementing NAFTA, Mexico has sought greater coordination with both the United States and Canada. This has meant, among other things, aligning Mexican hours to the U.S. daylight and saving time changes, which, for a nation that lies closer to the equator, means more hours in school and at work. More importantly, Mexico, after a heated debate, officially abolished the siesta -– the traditional midday closing of businesses for three or four hours to allow people to go home and share meals with their families. As a consequence, working “9 to 5” means that home-prepared meals are for the majority of Mexicans a thing of the past, and the “super-sized” fast-food alternative is just around the corner.

“I see it every day,” Salazar continued, “children given money to buy a ‘Happy Meal’ and stressed out mothers who can only think of serving a Pizza Hut pizza for dinner. Over time, the junk food takes its toll on the body.”

If Mexico hoped that NAFTA would be a ticket to becoming more like the United States, it may have gotten its wish. One of the unintended consequences of the trade agreement has been to make Mexico a nation in which morbid obesity has become a national health crisis –- just as it has with its neighbor to the north.

Louis Nevaer is a contributor to NAM whose new book, "Managing Hispanic and Latino Employees," will be published in December 2009.

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