Published On: May 4, 2017

Obesity is on the Rise

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Brazil has been bogged down in a recession for over two years but one business is still growing – fast food – and as it expands, so does the country’s obesity problem.

Brazil’s government won worldwide praise for bringing 36 million people out of poverty during 13 years of rule by the leftist Workers’ Party, which ended in August 2016. As the economy boomed and consumer spending followed, some of the poor joined the lower middle class. By 2014, the middle class had grown to almost 60 percent of the entire country.

However, the strength of the economy and the rise in consumer spending came at an unexpected cost – an explosion in the number of overweight people, who now account for 57 percent of Brazil’s population. Additionally, 20 percent of Brazilians are obese.

Doctors, nutritionists, and other specialists say the weight gain is particularly pronounced among Brazilians with low earnings – many of whom swapped precarious lives where food was often scarce for better incomes and cheap, abundant junk food and processed food.

“These are people who spend a lot of time at work or commuting. They do not have money or conditions to do physical activity,” said João Regis, an endocrinologist at Rio’s Clementino Fraga Filho Hospital. “They are not educated about obesity.” The rise in weight problems creates a huge burden for Brazil’s over-extended public health system, which is grappling with escalating levels of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

fatwalk3-med

Rising obesity is a global phenomenon, but it is increasingly affecting developing countries in Latin America and Caribbean. The percentage of overweight Brazilians was already rising in 2003, and since then it has kept climbing for men and rocketed more than 40 percent for women. Additionally and potentially worse, 1 in 3 Brazilian children are overweight.

In 1975, Brazil had the world’s ninth largest population of underweight men. By 2014, it was ranked third globally for obese men, after China and the United States, according to a study in the Lancet, a British medical journal. Nearly 1 in 4 women are obese today in Brazil.

Rio bar owner Veronica Cabral, 28, weighs 368 pounds (167 kilos), and her 8-year-old daughter, Debora, is classified as seriously obese. Veronica grew up in a very poor family in Recife. She said, “We lived by the beach, we fished, we had a garden and vegetables and fruit in the yard.” When she was 13, her mother moved her and her four siblings to Rio. As Brazil’s economy roared thanks to rising commodities prices, a new, lower-middle class was born and encouraged to spend with easy credit.

As a result, everybody in Veronica’s family got jobs. For Brazilians like her who had grown up with little money, grabbing fast food and a soda at McDonald’s or the Brazilian burger chain Bob’s was desirable and affordable. “Everything we could not do in childhood we did as adults,” she said. “Eat what you want. You go to the mall, you go to McDonald’s.”

Ronaldo playing overweight

Ronaldo playing overweight

Brazil’s fast-food market grew in value by 82 percent from 2008 through 2013. Even with a recession, the number of fast-food restaurants rose 11 percent in 2015. The problem is that while Brazilians’ incomes might have been dropping recently, they have continued their fast food habits.

Veronica weighed 483 pounds (219 kilos) when she first sought help at Rio’s nonprofit Group for the Rescue of Self-Esteem and Citizenship of the Obese – GRACO. The group was founded in 2002 and offers free low-fat lunches, nutrition advice, and physical education to about 200 people a month.

“Most of the time, these are people with low incomes,” said Rosimere da Silva, the founder of GRACO. Michele Lessa, general coordinator of nutrition at Brazil’s Ministry of Health, said the rise in obesity is due to the growing consumption of junk food and processed food, an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, and the rising popularity of eating out rather than cooking at home.

fat on beach

The government has launched campaigns encouraging a healthier diet, financed exercise spaces in Brazilian towns, and encouraged more nutritious meals in school cafeterias. Recent figures suggest the growth of obesity may have slowed, Michele said.

Cintia Cercato, an endocrinologist and president of the Brazilian Association for the Study of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome, cited Brazilians’ move to urban areas as a contributing factor to rising obesity. Today, 86 percent of Brazilians live in cities. Many residents spend hours commuting to and from work on public transport, leaving less time for cooking or exercise. “We know that urban areas have more obesity than rural areas,” she said.

Activists are fighting back. Chile has implemented a law requiring health warnings on products high in sugar, sodium, calories, or fats. In March, a Brazilian high court fined a cookie company U$88 thousand over a promotion in which children collected packets to buy a cheap Shrek watch. Brazilian legislation prohibits advertising directed at children, but it is often ignored, said Ekaterine Karageorgiadis, a lawyer for São Paulo’s Alana Institute, a nonprofit group that first brought the case against the cookie company.

Government figures show obesity and excess weight are higher among citizens with less schooling. Michele Lessa, the health ministry official, noted that the weight epidemic affects Brazilians of all kinds. “Obesity is democratic,” she said. “In recent years it is increasing more in poorer women, but it is a problem now for all social classes in Brazil.”

[This article originally appeared in The Washington Post in different form.]

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