Latin America "Feeling the Weight" of Obesity

October 11, 2016

Millions of Latin Americans struggle with obesity, an epidemic that has hit this region with a stronger impact than most others in the developing world. More than 56% of Latin American adults are overweight or even obese, topping the global average of 34%.1 Mexican adults boast the worst statistic with 70% overweight, according to their National Institute for Public Health.1The problem most directly affects the poor, but threatens nearly everyone in the long run as public health systems “feel the weight” of overwhelming numbers of complications that stem from an overweight population.

Threatening obesity may seem counterintuitive for the developing world with more than 68 million hungry in 1991. The number of hungry people in Latin America has halved since the early 90s, right on track with the UN’s goal to substantially reduce hunger in the developing world.1Unfortunately, little concern has been expressed to combat the other side of malnutrition. Solving undernutrition has created a new evil.  Rising middle classes in countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Brazil boost demand for processed foods that are particularly high in salt, sugar and fats. The multinational capability of American food and beverage firms has caused the spread of advertising’s reach, making unhealthy food both cheaper and more attractive to consumers. "People are opting for cheap food that is low in nutrition, tastes good and is prepacked," explained University of Witwatersrand nutrition professor Karen Hofman.2 In her research she has found food labels culpable as well, reporting that many consumers don’t take the time to flip over the package to read and understand the label, just take a moment to make sure it hasn’t expired.2

Cash transfer programs in nations such as Brazil have allowed families to spend more on food, but often promote unhealthy choices. These programs have not promoted people to buy more foods high in fiber and protein such as fruits and vegetables. Without teaching families how to balance their diets, much of these state funded programs will promote future public health care spending instead of preventing it.

Obesity is the world’s fastest growing chronic disease, killing 2.8 million adults every year. Related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease cause more deaths than hunger worldwide.The impact of rising obesity is a global problem, bringing social challenges and economic burden beyond the individuals whose health is in danger, especially in the age of public health care. Mexico’s economy is estimated to suffer $USD12.5 billion in 2017 due to inefficiencies connected to obesity.1

Public health measures have been proposed in several different countries. Mexico is trying to promote exercise and healthy eating through various policies. Lawmakers have introduced various strategies, from 2014 taxes on sugary and junk food drinks to the latest idea to give free subway rides to passengers who perform 10 squats.1 Costa Rica, Uruguay and Colombia, too, have launched similar initiatives, combating unhealthy food in schools by requiring water fountains in all schools. Ecuador has strengthened regulation on food labels, following suit from other parts of the developing world that are too combatting an overweight populace.

Puerto Rico is debating a controversial bill to fine parents of obese children up to $USD 800 if they do not make changes to improve their child’s health.3 According to a report by Associated Press, about a third of the island’s children obese; lawmakers are concerned about the economic burden for the state as these children grow into adults that have developed problematic conditions exacerbated by excess body weight and fat.3 The bill would ask public school teachers to flag potential cases and report them to social workers and counselors. The Health Department, if deemed necessary to get involved, would work with parents to determine the main cause of obesity, whether genetic or due to poor health habits. After being given a diet-and-exercise program complemented with monthly visits, a six-month evaluation will determine whether the parents of the child will face a fine. Opinions of the public and health community alike are divided regarding its equity and efficiency.

Late in January at the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, José Graziano da Silva, proposed a regional plan to improve nutrition, hunger and poverty rates by 2025. The program will work to sustainably ensure accessibility to safe and nutritious foods, widen school feeding programs that combat all forms of malnutrition, and tackle challenges of food security posed by climate change.4 FAO’s representative for Latin America, Raúl Benítez commented optimistically, “Political commitment to food security is what makes the difference between Latin America and the Caribbean and other regions. This commitment is expressed through a variety of strategies and public policies focused on vulnerable populations.”4 Given the realizations of the hunger eradication campaign endorsed by the region in 2005, hopefully a new, more pointed policy initiative will find success in Latin America as well.


1) Moloney, Anastasia and Christ Arensault. “Obesity weighs on Latin America after success in fight against hunger.” Reuters via Yahoo News. Available at:

2) Farber, Tanya. “Cheap food fuels SA’s obesity.” Times Live. Available at:

3) “Puerto Rico lawmakers debate fining parents of obese children.” NBC News. Available at:

4) “FAO presents plan for eradicating hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean.” DISHaDiary. Available at:


About Author(s)

dmscalise's picture
Danielle Scalise
Danielle Scalise is a senior undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing degrees in Economics and Political Science, with a minor Spanish and certificate in Latin American Studies. She took part in the Pitt in Cuba program in the spring of 2013 and is currently an intern for Panoramas. Danielle is attending Georgetown Law in the fall where she will study international economic law pursuing a career specializing in US/Latin American trade relations.