Mexico: study blames NAFTA in obesity epidemic

A study published in the March issue of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health finds that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) may be partly responsible for the sharp increase in obesity among Mexicans since the accord took effect in January 1994. Entitled “Exporting Obesity: US farm and trade policy and the transformation of the Mexican consumer food environment,” the study indicates that by opening Mexico up to investment and food imports from the US, NAFTA altered Mexicans’ eating habits in a way that has affected their health.

Between 1988 and 1999 the average energy Mexicans obtained daily from fats rose from 23.5% to 30.3%—a 28.9% increase—while the consumption of refined carbohydrates rose by 6.3% and the consumption of soft drinks by 37.2%, according to the study. These changes coincided with increased imports of food products—including processed food and snacks—from the US, and with an increased US presence in food outlets. McDonalds, which opened its first Mexican restaurant in 1985, now has some 500 shops in 57 Mexican cities. The number of Wal-Mart stores jumped from 114 in 1993 to 561 in 2001; by 2005 Wal-Mart controlled 20% of the retail food sector in Mexico.

Weight problems increased in Mexico as these changes were taking place; from 2000 to 2006, for example, obesity and excess weight rose by 12%. The effects were especially severe among children. Alejandro Calvillo, director of the nonprofit group Consumer Power, says national surveys show obesity and excess weight increasing by 40% from 1999 to 2006 among children between the ages of five and 11.

According to David Wallinga, a co-author of the study and a science adviser at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in Minneapolis, “As Mexico’s food environment has come to resemble that of the US, with more ubiquitous sodas, processed meats and other processed snacks high in added fats and sweeteners, it’s no wonder that Mexico’s struggle with obesity and its related life-threatening problems—diabetes, stroke, heart disease—has become ‘Americanized’ as well.” (Common Dreams, April 5; Prensa Latina, April 5; La Jornada, Mexico, April 6)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 8.

See our last post on Mexico and the world gastronomic wars.