Mexico is the first developing country I’ve been to that has a serious problem with obesity. According to this chart, Mexico is more overweight and obese than the US (the Mexico data is from 2006 and the US data from 2008, though).
I have no special insight into Mexico beyond aimlessly wandering around it for the past five days and reading a few articles since I’ve come back, but I was struck by the degree to which Mexico appears to have imported a number of America’s bad food habits.
Basically all of America’s fast food chains are present in the Mexican market at prices Mexicans can afford. This isn’t unique to Mexico (the longest queue I ever saw in Thailand was outside a shopping mall Krispy Kreme about to open for the day), but theprevalence is much greater than other second-world countries I’ve visited. Thanks NAFTA!
Aside from the food chains, Mexico has been saturated by the soda companies. I’ve never been to a country where I’ve seen as many people drinking out of Big Gulps on the street, and it doesn’t surprise me that Mexicans consume more Coca-Cola products per capita than any other country.
‘Value-Added’ Food Products
Every supermarket I went to in Mexico was stacked to the techo with the kind of processed, sugary, overmarketed crap you see at American supermarkets. As you can see from the photo above, even the ‘healthy’ products like yogurt were all technicolor-flavored and packed with extra sugar.
You can always tell how bad things are by checking the industry associations. Here’s the Food Export Association:
The packaged food market in Mexico had been estimated to reach US$60.7 billion in 2009, which is the second largest in Latin America after Brazil. That represents a growth rate of 43.7% or US$18.4 billion since 2004.
Historic high growth categories included ready meals, snack bars, baby food, and pasta and dried processed food. The forecast for growth in this market is also promising. [...]
Forecast high growth products include ready meals and meal replacement products, frozen and chilled processed food, baby food, soups and snack foods.
Another component of this was the fact that Mexico City doesn’t actually have all that many supermarkets. There’s a shitload of Wal-Marts, but they’re all on the periphery. The only groceries available in a lot of urban neighborhoods is from the ubiquitous 7-11s and Circle-Ks, which primarily stock sodas, chips, microwavable burritos and slowly rotating hot-dogs.
I’ve never been anywhere that is less friendly to pedestrians and bikers than Mexico City. Not only are the streets wide and fast, but there are dozens of flyovers and duck-unders that are explicitly closed to every mode of transport other than cars.
To jog to the park just 1km from my hotel, I had to illegally cross two six-lane highways and walk through an underpass crowded with merchants, including food vendors. This would have been impossible with a bike.
Mexico City is working really hard to improve this, including installing a bike-share scheme and building an electric-powered Bus Rapid Transit network. But until they get people out of their cars, there remain few options for physical activity in the city.
My proxy indicator for telling whether a country has an obesity problem is how many gimmicky ‘light’ products are available. And Mexico is full of this shit. This cafe even had an entire ‘light’ menu!
This indicates that people in Mexico want to lose weight, but just like Americans, they’re being given a bunch of options that are only going to make them fatter. The ‘light’ yogurt I almost bought at a supermarket had four times more sugar than the full-fat yogurt, and the same amount of calories. People are eating this shit (or ordering the fucking mangosteen) thinking it’s good for them, but it’s just making their problem worse.
There’s a real movement in America to pressure food manufacturers to stop lying on their packaging and start producing genuinely healthy products. I hope this pressure spreads to the developing world too. Right now, it seems like instead of learning from our mistakes, we’re exporting them.