LIMA, Peru — “The hardest nut to crack is weight,” says Gabriela Aro, who heads a groundbreaking school meals program based on traditional indigenous ingredients in the Bolivian capital, La Paz.
The program targets nutritional problems among 153,000 needy youngsters in 411 public kindergartens and schools in one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries.
But along with long-established conditions such as malnutrition and anemia, a new threat is rapidly emerging: obesity.
Although there is a dearth of reliable data, most experts agree that Latin Americans are, on average, rapidly packing on the pounds.
At an annual cost of 148 million bolivianos ($21 million), the La Paz program has had a major impact on some youngsters’ health problems since it began in 2000.
Malnutrition has fallen from 10.2 percent to 5.9 percent since the free meals were first served. Meanwhile, anemia has plummeted from 37 percent to just 2 percent.
Yet the proportion of overweight kids has jumped from 17 percent to 25 percent.
“The program is going well but obesity is the stumbling block,” Aro told GlobalPost. “It just continues to rise. Access to fast food, full of empty calories, is increasing, and the kids love it. It is very hard to fight that.”
Under the program, youngsters get one free meal a day, involving bars, muesli or bread made from whole-meal Andean grains such as amaranth, quinoa or canihua. These are complemented with milk, yogurt and fruit.
Loaded with protein, fiber and a long list of vitamins, those cereals pack a serious nutritional punch, and help to fill up the kids before they get a chance to hit the junk food stands that throng many school gates.
Yet although those traditional Andean staples are flying off the shelves of premium health-food stores in the developed world, urbanization and economic growth mean that many families in Bolivia are increasingly leaving them behind as they adopt “modern” diets, full of saturated fats, sugar and salt.
And as they do so, a growing number of children are becoming simultaneously overweight and malnourished.
“We are taking a holistic approach, viewing all three issues [malnutrition, anemia and obesity] as part of the same problem,” adds Aro. “We want to ensure the children are getting enough to eat, but also that they learn to make their own healthy choices.”
Nevertheless, Bolivians may take heart from the fact that the obesity epidemic is actually far more intense in other parts of the continent. Among the worst affected are Argentina, Chile, the Central American nations and Mexico.
Along with the benefits of economic development and free trade have come some of the West’s ills. These include increasingly sedentary lifestyles and what experts call the “nutritional transition” as more and more people are exposed to cheap, nutrient-poor, calorie-rich processed foods.
According to one recent study, as import tariffs fell between 1990 and 2005 in Central America, US exports of processed cheese to the area rose more than 3,000 percent while French fries ended up comprising nearly one-quarter of all fruit and vegetable imports.
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Using classic academic understatement, the researchers concluded: “While there are arguments for and against trade liberalization, it is essential to consider its effects on the poor.”
Globalization may also help explain why, nearly two decades after the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect, Mexico has moved from a country where obesity was virtually unknown to being the world’s second chubbiest nation, after the US.
A staggering 69 percent of men and 73 percent of women are overweight in Mexico, according to Guillermo Melendez, a doctor and nutritional expert at the Mexican Health Foundation, a nonprofit group in Mexico City.
And the problem is affecting Mexicans at increasingly tender ages. In 1999, 27 percent of Mexican children were overweight or obese. It is now 31 percent, he says.
As Mexicans’ earnings have grown, they have increasingly moved away from a traditional diet based largely on corn, beans, tomatoes and chilies, with a smattering of eggs and cheese, to eating unhealthy quantities of fried meat.
“We have to change the culture of food, which is very influenced by the big corporations, and return to traditional Mexican foods,” he told GlobalPost.
The government is now taking action, after drawing up a national Obesity Prevention Strategy in 2010 with some of the largest food companies. That has included banning sodas as well as fatty and high-sugar snacks from schools.
Meanwhile, according to Melendez, 97 percent of Mexican children get no exercise at school.
“Kids have stopped playing soccer in the streets,” he adds. “Now, it is all TV and video games. That has to change too.”
The big question now is whether, as other Latin American nations follow Mexico up the obesity curve, their governments will also decide that market intervention is necessary to brake the ballooning public health crisis.