Health & Education

On your Bike


Mexico has succeeded in stopping the further spread of obesity with a multi-pronged approach, but static rates of overweight and obese individuals prove there is more to be done.

José Narro Robles, the Minister of Health has called obesity one of the largest issues the country must address in terms of public health in the years to come. The most recent National Survey on Health and Nutrition was conducted by the Federal Ministry of Health in 2016. Launched in 1988, it is supposed to be carried out every six years. Nevertheless, it was conducted earlier than planned because of the high prevalence of obesity and related diseases. The figures point out that in spite of the different efforts to stop the trend, obesity has only stagnated in Mexican cities and has steadily grown in rural areas. Around 72.5% of the adult population and 30% of children are either overweight or obese.

These figures have been alarming Mexican authorities for a while. As the National Institute of Public Health (INSP) stresses, “Diseases associated with obesity, besides affecting public health, harm the country’s productivity and its economic development.” Official estimates highlight that so far in 2017, direct and indirect costs of the diseases linked to obesity represent 1.5% of GDP.

Diabetes is one of the top-two causes of death in Mexico, alongside heart disease. The Diabetes Federation’s figures are staggering: the illness killed 98,000 people in 2016, up from 14,000 in 1980. The Ministry of Health declared an epidemiologic emergency for diabetes, a first of its kind for a non-infectious disease.

Actions taken to fight this trend include both carrot and stick measures. The public sector has leveraged its capacity to push regulations decreasing sugar and salt consumption while making potable water more readily available. The tax on sugary beverages has received greater attention both domestically and overseas, as many countries have sought to replicate the initiative. In the three and a half years since its implementation, per capita sales of sugary beverages dropped by 8.3% compared to the pre-tax period, according to researcher from INSP.

At the municipal level, Mexico City’s Secretary of Health has pointed out that the city has gone further with two more measures. Restaurants that agree to remove salt from their tables and display messages about the risks of excess sodium started receiving a label from the city. Also, in 2013 Mexico City’s legislative assembly mandated restaurants to provide free glasses of drinkable water.

Healthy lifestyle promotion also plays a part. The federal campaign Muévete y métete en cintura (Move and get in shape), launched in 2008, displays visual messages everywhere from public transport to television. At public events held every weekend, nutritionists measure BMI, and fitness trainers lead workout sessions.

Other policies such as increasing the capacity and quality of public transportation as well as building better infrastructure for walking and cycling can certainly help. An increase in the perceived safety of parks and other public spaces might provide an incentive for physical activity, especially among children.

The private sector also has a stake in the fight against obesity. Many consumer packaged goods companies have adapted their offerings to include healthier products, in part because civic organizations have been able to create efficient lobby initiatives. The Alianza por la Salud Alimentaria (Alliance for Food Health) is an umbrella organization gathering several social organizations advocating consumers right to access healthy products. The Movement for a Healthy Life (Movisa), launched by several companies and academic institutions in 2017, has focused on teaching people how to read the nutrition facts displayed on packaged goods in order to make better-informed purchases. In the past, these labels were often considered too complicated and confusing for consumers.

Though many are contributing to the solution, experts argue that results will take some years to become visible. Indeed, rates of overweight and obese adults and children have remained almost stagnant overall since 2012. While further increases have been avoided, the fight against the obesity epidemic continues with increased urgency to up the ante and reverse the trend.