Mexico School Children, Police Officers Get Nutrition Overhaul

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Obesity is a significant problem in many countries around the world, with Mexico ranking second behind the United States as “Fattest Nation”, according to one recent national survey. With obesity-related conditions such as diabetes being the leading cause of death in the nation, leaders and activists in Mexico are cracking down on the consumption of fatty food, beginning with the youngest of the population and Mexico City’s public servants.

According to recent data, more than 71% of Mexican women and 66% of Mexican men are overweight. Barry Popkin, professor at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill says that the problem came on rapidly. In 1989, fewer than 10% of Mexican adults were overweight. Health experts blame the invasion of US-style junk foods, processed foods and soft drinks.

President Felipe Calderon also reports that Mexico is “the country with the biggest problem of childhood obesity in the entire world.” One study found 26% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 to be overweight, compared to about 19% of the same age group in the United States.

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Diabetes is now Mexico’s leading cause of death. The Mexican Diabetes Federation estimates that 6.5 million to 10 million Mexicans have diabetes and more than 70,000 die each year from diabetes-related conditions. Mexicans also have a high prevalence of high blood pressure, heart disease, and kidney failure.

Health minister Jose Angel Cordova blames multiple factors, including the 40% decrease in the consumption of fruits and vegetables in the past 15 years and the 50% increase in the consumption of “sweet drinks.” Also common in Mexican culture is high sodium intake and frequent snacking.

Beginning next school year, Mexico will ban all junk food from its 220,000 public and private elementary and middle schools, which serve 25 million students. Replacing fatty sandwiches will be “light” versions of foods that include chicken, beans, and vegetables. Water, low-fat milk, and pure fruit juices will replace soft drinks and sugary fruit drinks. The lower house of Congress also approved a law in April to require daily exercise for all children, who currently get one class a week.

Officials in Mexico City are also targeting overweight police officers. Three-fourths of the 70,000-member police force in the Mexican capital are overweight. Dr. Alfredo Peniche, who heads the police department’s medical program, is monitoring a new eating plan for the officers which cuts calories from 4,000 per day to 2,500. The menu at police department eateries will include meals such as chicken fajitas, steak with mushrooms and nopales (prickly pear) and beans.

With both school children and police officers, battling the obesity epidemic will have many challenges. For example, many Mexican schools do not have cafeterias and children rely sometimes on vendors for mid-day meals. Three-quarters of schools are lacking in facilities for physical activity, such as playgrounds and gyms. Officials there hope that policy changes such as these will lead to culture changes that encourage Mexican citizens to adopt healthier eating habits and lead less sedentary lives.

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