Cuisine has changed as Mexico has experienced a nutrition transition

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Apr 072010

Mexico has passed rapidly through a “nutrition transition”.

Ingredients for guacamole. Photo: Chef Daniel Wheeler. All rights reserved.

The traditional Mexican diet was based on corn and beans, supplemented by fruits and vegetables with relatively little meat and dairy products. Over a 15-year period the average Mexican ate 29% less fruits and vegetables and 6% more carbohydrates while consuming 37% more soft drinks. In fact Mexicans now enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s greatest consumers of soft drinks, downing 160 liters a year on average.

White bread is replacing tortillas, fast food is replacing home cooking.

This nutrition transition, together with a more sedentary lifestyle, fueled a “disease transition”, characterized by a shift from high mortality due to infectious diseases to high mortality from non-communicable chronic diseases.

To see how Mexico compares with other countries—USA, Spain, France,  Japan, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, China and India— in terms of eating habits, see this recent graphical comparison:  New York Times Business section article of April 3, 2010, entitled “Factory Food” Mexico’s per person consumption of vegetables is lower than any other country on the chart except South Africa. Mexico’s consumption of “processed, frozen, dried and chilled food, and read-to-eat meals” is lower than any country except China and India, but Mexicans make up for this with a consumption of “bakery goods” that is more than double that of any other country on the chart.

This post includes edited excerpts from chapter 28 of of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!

Apr 052010

The soft drinks industry in Mexico is big business. Nationwide, there are about 250 bottling plants. Between them they produce some 300 million cases of soft drinks a year, worth about 15.5 billion dollars. The soft drinks industry may bring economic benefits to industrialists, but is is also related to public health issues. Public health experts link the rising consumption of soft drinks and processed foods in Mexico with the rapidly rising rates of obesity, especially childhood obesity, and of diabetes.

Possibly the world's largest Coca-Cola bottle, Monterrey, Mexico. Photo: Tony Burton. All rights reserved

Despite health concerns, the consumption of soft drinks in Mexico continues to rise. The per person consumption of soft drinks in Mexico has reached 160 liters a year. This means Mexico has overtaken the USA to become the world’s leading consumer of soft drinks on a per person basis, according the the Health Commission of Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies. In terms of total volume of sales, Mexico is second to the USA.

The Commission alleges that Mexico has become a “paradise” for food and drink processing firms offering products with little or no nutritive value. Alarmingly, the highest rates of increase in soft drinks consumption are in the poorer parts of the country.

A National Nutrition Survey in 1999 of 23,000 households revealed startling increases in the number of people in Mexico classified as either overweight or obese. These two categories of over-nutrition are measured by calculating the body mass index, a measure of weight adjusted for height. The percentage of women considered obese rose 160% between 1988 and 1999. In 1999 59% of women and 55% of men were either overweight or obese; by 2008 the figures were 64% and 60% respectively. Only the USA has higher rates of obesity. Even more alarmingly, the rate of childhood obesity in Mexico is also increasing rapidly. A 2002 study found that 30% of elementary school children in Mexico City and 45% of adolescents were either overweight or obese.

The increase in over-nutrition has led to rapid rises in diet-related chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The overall effects of diseases on a country’s population can be assessed by working out the disability-adjusted life years (DALY), the years of expected life lost through disease or premature death. In Mexico, the DALY lost to diseases normally thought to be more typical of the developed world such as diabetes, heart attacks and strokes is estimated to be three times greater than the DALY stemming from childhood and maternal under-nutrition.

Mexico has the highest rate of diabetes in the world, more than 11%.9 The total number of patients diagnosed with diabetes has risen seven fold since 1990. Diabetes is now the leading cause of death and costs the country more than $300 million annually, one-third of the public health care budget.

This post includes an edited excerpt from chapter 28 of of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!