Mexico Imports a North American Malady

December 15, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

I met the man pictured above in a little park near a marketplace called Lucas de Galvez, in the city of Merida, during a recent trip to the Mexican state of Yucatan. His name was Oscar, and he walked up to me and offered to take my blood pressure. 

Now, there are times when I probably look like I have high blood pressure, such as when my I'm stuck in traffic because someone ahead of me fails to notice that a light has turned green. Or like when I try to get my cellphone to do anything but ring with spam calls. This was not one of those times. I declined.

Oscar politely explained that I wouldn't have to pay for the reading. Though he wore a white, official-looking medical jacket, and had a stethoscope and a blood-pressure gauge, he was apparently not licensed in medicine and therefore not entitled to charge anything for his services. If I got a blood pressure reading and thought kindly toward him for it, he said, I could choose to make a donation. It seemed like a tough way to make a living, until I took a closer look around me. 

The park was full of fat people. Looking around. I almost felt thin--and I am not thin. It was no wonder Oscar did what he did where he did it. If you had a job that required finding good prospects for hypertension measurement, the park at the market of Lucas de Galvez was a target-rich environment. I didn't have to search to find examples to photograph. The woman above left was sitting on the bench opposite me when Oscar approached.

Not every neighborhood in Merida looked this way, of course. There are wealthy colonias on the north side of town where the shopping centers and country clubs would not look out of place in the suburbs of, say, Dallas. And the people in those neighborhoods have what I would guess is a normal weight distribution in the United States. There are overwight people, but there are people of average weight and people who are thin.

Not around the market of San Luca de Galvez, though. and not in many other places I visited on my trip to Mexico. I saw the woman at right struggling to descend the stairs of an ancient Mayan pyramid in the town of Izamal. She barely made it. Another woman, almost equally large, hurt something in her leg as she  descended the same stairs. Someone had to help her cross the neighboring street.

It did not take much time with Google and the internet to confirm what I was seeing. Mexico has become, at least in some rankings, the most obese country in the world. (Other rankings still have the United States as No. 1.) 

There was no shortage of theories as to why. The most plausible, to my mind, were the ones that cited major changes in Mexico's diet and exercise habits, particularly in its working-class citizens. Processed food, I read, hit the Mexican market in a big way in the 1970s and 1980s. Processed food products replaced traditional fruits, vegetables and meats in Mexico's diet because they were cheaper and easier to prepare.

I could believe this because I had seen in a traditional Yucatan restaurant in Merida how hard the Yucatecas once had to work to prepare food. In addition to gathering plants and griding them to make spices, and hunting for game, they traditionally dug pits in the ground and buried the food with burning logs in order to slowly cook it. Now, they can zap processed food in a microwave, getting more salt, fat and sugar into their bodies and expending far fewer calories to do it. 

Or they can eat a big plate of roasted pork, sauce, and nachos in a restaurant like the one on the left, and wash it down with a big Coca-Cola for about the equivalent of five bucks.

Coke is as ubiquitous as bellies in Merida. And I need not tell you in which country fast food, processed food and sugary drinks were invented or perfected. So is  the United States responsible for Mexico's obesity problem?

This question gets into the realm of phiosophy, I think. Is Henry Ford responsible for climate change? After all, he invented an affordable car for the masses, who used it to spew untoward amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Viewed one way, Ford didn't force anyone to overuse his invention. Viewed another way, it was predictable that once human beings got hold of a way to replace the effort of walking, or caring for horses, they would inevitably overuse it. So Ford can be blamed, at least for a failure of foresight.

The American companies that sell products like Coca-Cola in Mexico are, I supposed, partly responsible in much the same way, for Mexio's obesity problems. But I could point to other causes. As Mexico has developed into a middle-income country on the world scale, it has attained a more sedentary lifestyle. And maybe its cultural heritage makes people inlined to eat what's available when it's available, because tomorrow you might be hungry.

Regardless of who, or what, is to blame, Mexico now faces the problem of doing something about it. Almost 10 years ago, the government imposed a special 8 percent tax on the kinds of foods and drinks that are blamed for obesity. There have since been studies that suggest the tax has indeed reduced Mexico's consumption of junk foods, but by a relatively small percentage. And the eyeball evidence in the streets of Merida suggested to me that the tax is not going to eliminate Mexico's problem.




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