Jun 062013

Earlier this week, the headline “Ocupa México primer lugar mundial en obesidad; supera a EU” (Mexico in first place for obesity; more obese than the USA)  grabbed my attention. The headline appeared in the Mexican magazine Proceso, normally a stickler for getting its facts straight.

Last time we checked (October 2012)–Obesity in Mexico compared to other countries: bigger is not better–Mexico was in fourth place in the obesity league table, behind Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the USA. [Note that our ranking excludes several very small countries with higher rates of obesity, such as Nauru (71.1%), Cook Islands (64.1%), Marshall Islands (46.5%), Kiribati (45.8%) and St.Kitts-Nevis (40.9%).]

The Proceso article was based on the latest United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report entitled “The State of Food and Agriculture: Food Systems for a Better Nutrition

On reading the report, it turned out that Proceso had made an unaccustomed error. Mexico is not the most obese country in the world, but remains in fourth place, behind Saudi Arabia, Egypt and South Africa. Mexico has overtaken the USA but has itself been overtaken by South Africa. Normally, any time Mexico beats the USA, whatever the sport or event, it calls for a good old-fashioned celebration with some shots of tequila, but on this occasion, it raises some serious concerns about Mexico’s nutrition and health care strategies.

Obesity in adults is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than or equal to 30, where BMI is defined as a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his height in meters (kg/m2). Mexico’s rate (for adults), as quoted in the FAO report, had risen to 32.8% of the adult population, almost one in three. By way of comparison, the equivalent figures were 35.2% for Saudi Arabia and 34.6% for Egypt, while the USA rate fell slightly to 31.8%.

The FAO estimates that 12.5% of the world’s population (868 million people) are undernourished in terms of energy intake, yet these figures represent only a fraction of the global burden of malnutrition (over- and under-nutrition). An estimated 26% of the world’s children (under 5 years of age) are stunted, 2 billion people suffer from one or more micronutrient deficiencies and 1.4 billion people are overweight, of whom 500 million are obese.

Most countries are burdened by multiple types of malnutrition, which may coexist within the same country, household or individual.

The social cost of malnutrition, measured by the “disability-adjusted life years” (DALY) lost to child and maternal malnutrition and to overweight and obesity, is very high. Beyond the social cost, the cost to the global economy caused by malnutrition, as a result of lost productivity and direct health care costs, could account for as much as 5% of global gross domestic product (GDP), equivalent to US$3.5 trillion per year or US$500 per person.

The FAO stresses that, “The way we grow, raise, process, transport and distribute food influences what we eat,” and adds that improved food systems can make food more affordable, diverse and nutritious.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including using appropriate agricultural policies, investment and research to increase productivity; cutting food losses and waste, which currently amount to one third of the food produced for human consumption every year; and helping consumers make good dietary choices for better nutrition through education, information and other actions.

Among other recommendations is to make food systems more responsive to the needs of mothers and young children. FAO notes that malnutrition during the critical ‘first 1,000 days’ from conception can cause lasting damage to women’s health and life-long physical and cognitive impairment in children.

The agency cites several projects that have proved successful in raising nutrition levels such as the promotion of home gardens in West Africa; encouragement of mixed vegetable and animal farming systems together with income-generating activities in some Asian countries; and public-private partnerships to enrich products like yoghurt or cooking oil with nutrients.

Other figures for Mexico from the report:

  • 29.4% of children under five have anemia
  • 26.8% of children under five suffer from vitamin A deficiency
  •  8.5% of children under five have an iodine deficiency

Note: This post includes some paragraphs from the related FAO press release. Click here for the full text of the report (pdf file).

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