What are we waiting for?

Child obesity in Mexico presents an urgency that demands immediate change.

By UNICEF Mexico
Mexico and obesity: A young boy and his mother stand in front of shelves lined with processed foods in Mexico City.
UNICEF Mexico/2020/Carrillo

04 March 2020

MEXICO CITY, Mexico – Weekdays start early, around 5:30 a.m. for Alicia and Ricky. They live in Xochimilco, a southern neighbourhood of Mexico City. Alicia prepares breakfast for her 10-year-old boy, Ricky, which includes a fruit smoothie and a sandwich. She tries to make this meal as healthy as possible because they won’t find as many nutritious options the rest of the day.

Alicia, 30, who works as a house maid, usually has a loaded workday with a three to four hours commute. “I don’t have much time to go to the market; I know it is good to eat fruits; I also know I should buy more vegetables, but I don’t have the time to buy nor prepare them at home.” Her choices then are fast and processed foods.

 

"Mexico is the largest consumer of ultra-processed products, including sugary drinks, in Latin America."

For school, Alicia gives Ricky some money for a snack. He usually buys tacos or popcorn and candy. He doesn’t buy anything to drink, and although there are water fountains in his school, he doesn’t like to drink water because “it doesn’t have any taste at all.” When Ricky goes to a nearby market with his mom or when they go for a walk, he likes to get candy, chips and ice cream. Alicia says that when he does eat fruit it’s only because she encouraged him to do so.


The rise of obesity

The lack of access to fresh and healthy foods, the aggressive marketing of food products directed at children and high exposure to ultra-processed food in homes, schools and markets, all contribute to an unhealthy environment that promotes obesity and affects Alicia, Ricky and millions of other Mexicans.

In 2016, Mexico declared an epidemiological alert due to the high rates of diabetes and obesity. One third of Mexican children and adolescents are overweight or obese. This is by no means a coincidence, as Mexico is the largest consumer of ultra-processed products, including sugary drinks, in Latin America. The highest rates of consumption are among preschoolers who receive about 40 per cent of their calories from these products.

Excess weight during childhood affects children´s growth and development and may increase the chances of them becoming sick as adults, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

If unchecked, the growing rates of overweight children will have a negative impact on the economy, productivity and the overall wellbeing of the population.
 

Better informed consumers

The Mexican government recognizes the need to take preventative measures. Part of its efforts have been in instituting regulations. In 2014, it took the first groundbreaking step of implementing the sugary drinks tax.

As of 2020, Mexico is in the process of adopting a new front-of-package labelling, which has been supported by several government institutions, academia, civil society and international organizations including UNICEF. Developed with the most up-to-date and compelling evidence, this type of labelling will warn consumers of excess calories, sugar, sodium, saturated fats, and trans-fats, as well as caffeine and artificial sweeteners, so that children can avoid them. Additionally, it will prohibit the use of popular characters and cartoons on products directed at children. This pivotal measure cannot wait much longer if the country wants to start tackling the overweight epidemic.

Mexico obesity: Fruits and vegetables in a market
UNICEF Mexico/2020/Carrillo
Fruit and vegetable stall in a local market from Mexico City. Many families don’t buy natural and fresh products as they prefer fast and processed foods.
Better nutrition for all

Simón Barquera, Director of the Health and Nutrition Research Center from the National Institute of Public Health, says that front-of-package labelling will help “by allowing a great portion of the population, regardless of their socioeconomic and education status, to identify unhealthy products and make better nutrition choices.”

“This is the right moment to win the battle against obesity.”

Alejandro Calvillo, Director of El Poder del Consumidor, one of the most active civil society organizations on this subject, feels that “this is the right moment to win the battle against obesity and the front-of-package labelling will significantly contribute to this objective by helping the consumer to choose fresh and natural products over ultraprocessed ones.”  

With measures such as these, Alicia will be able to provide better nutrition for Ricky. She will have more information to make healthier choices, and Ricky will have daily access to more natural and fresh products, both in school and on visits to the market with his mother, where he is actively involved in the purchasing decisions of his household.