In Argentina, obesity is second only to smoking as the largest preventable cause of death. 18% of the population is obese (having a Body Mass Index of over 30) and 50% overweight (with a BMI of higher than 24.9). Body Mass Index is based on the relationship between the height and weight of a person and should ideally be between 18.5 and 24.9.
Less calorie-burning physical activity is partly to blame for the excess pounds. The Ministry of Health’s 2005 National Survey of Risk Factors (ENFR) showed 46.2% of the Argentine adult population had sedentary jobs; whilst in 2009, when the survey was repeated, this figure had risen to 54.9%. New technologies translate to more time spent in front of a screen, whilst longer and more time-pressured working days squeeze out recreational time.
Diet is also a crucial contributing factor, given that weight is gained when a person does not burn enough of the calories they ingest, which are then stored as fat. A higher concentration of fat in the body makes triglycerides more likely to ‘stick’ to the inside of arteries, restricting the flow of blood and potentially causing strokes or heart attacks.
Meanwhile, type II (late onset) diabetes becomes more probable with high sugar consumption, and an increased sodium intake raises the risk of hypertension. With excessive weight gain, the body’s immune system becomes less effective and arthritis can be contracted from the increased strain on the skeleton.
Traditional Argentine fare was influenced by the country’s status as a major meat producer and harvester of wheat. This coupled with a large influx of Italian immigrants meant a carb-laden diet that centred round white bread, empanadas, pizza, pasta and polenta. Argentina is still heaven for red meat lovers, with an average annual beef consumption of around 70kg per capita. In traditional parillas, meat is coated with salt before being grilled and served alone on a plate—a side salad or vegetables must be ordered separately.
In addition, sugary facturas and dulce de leche are national treats, consumed either at breakfast or in the late afternoon. Meanwhile, many other products contain ‘hidden’ calories: ground coffee bought from the supermarket, for example, has usually been toasted with sugar.
The abundance of carb-heavy foods can be a shock for new arrivals. Joy Choi, an American-Korean student on exchange at the UBA for a term, has had to adapt to the diet living with an Argentine family: “I eat a lot of milanesas, empanadas and rice. I said on my placement form that I would like plenty of fruit and vegetables, so I’ve been lucky, but I know some students are missing out…The US is known for being ‘the fat nation’ so there’s a backlash there now – a real trend for anything healthy, vegetarian or organic. I don’t think that’s caught on yet here.”
However, perhaps surprisingly for an affliction traditionally associated with the wealthy, lower-income households appear to be among the most vulnerable to bad dietary habits. There is growing concern about obesity in Argentina’s villas (shantytowns), for example, especially among the child population.
Dr. Aldo Cuneo, a doctor specialising in nutrition at the UBA’s Facultad de Medicina, believes nutrition in villas is poor because of a lack of education on the benefits of healthy eating and due to a lack of resources. “Vitamin-rich foods such as fruit, vegetables, meat and fish are the most expensive products to buy so it’s difficult for a large family to get enough nutrients. Women have to work and have less time to cook, so they feed their families cheap and filling meals that are high in fat such as hamburgers and hotdogs. As well as obesity, eating too much junk food can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies such as a lack of calcium, which is needed by bones and teeth.”
According to Cuneo, junk foods often have the following in common: they are prominently displayed in shops, they require little or no preparation and they contain large amounts of saturated fat, salt and sugar. This makes them both tasty and able to produce hormonal gratification, which can lead to addiction.
Searching for a Solution
Just as the causes of obesity are found in diet and exercise, so are the solutions. The responsibility is individual, parental and political. Children should learn from an early age that the dietary choices they make affect their bodies and, with this in mind, some primary schools in Córdoba and Buenos Aires province have opened healthy kiosks that sell low-fat break time options such as fruit and juices. Parents have to be careful that their authority is not usurped by the advertising industry, which spends US$40bn annually on promotions and publicity targeting children as young as two.
The government also has a role to play. Cuneo cites the example of Finland, where fruit and vegetables are subsidised to make them cheaper than junk food. In Buenos Aires, he believes the government could improve access to the Mercado Central (located just outside the city limits), where fruit and vegetables can be bought at a fraction of their supermarket price.
Santiago Maggio is a high-performance coach and Physical Education teacher. He believes the government should invest more in sport, both in school and out. “At primary school, children have two thirty-minute sessions of PE per week, which increase to forty minutes in length at secondary school. Private schools devote more time to sport because they have better facilities. Parents don’t have the energy to do sport with their children at the end of a long, stressful day of work. The alternative would be to send children to sports clubs, but these can be prohibitively expensive.”
Maggio goes on to describe how many over-40s are taking up sport for the first time since their 20s, as their jobs previously did not allow time. This increasingly common sedentary lifestyle has been called “a vice” by Gerardo Werthein, head of the Argentine Olympic Committee, and warned against by Minister for Health Juan Manzur.
Small lifestyle choices can have a huge impact in the national fight against obesity. Day to day, workers can use the stairs instead of a lift, get off the bus a few stops early and take part in ‘Active Break’, a workplace-based programme where employees take a break from work to follow a video of stretching exercises. Experts recommend 30 minutes of gentle exercise (such as walking) five times a week. Outside the workplace, a government initiative ‘Buenos Aires Doing Sport’ runs free exercise classes in parks and plazas across the city. These sessions are currently enjoyed by around 40,000 people every week.A Global Problem
How does Argentina compare to other countries? According to Cuneo the prevalence of obesity in Argentina is similar to that found in Brazil, Chile and Colombia. The countries with the most obesity are some Pacific Islands, where genetics means many inhabitants naturally have a lower metabolism, and the US, where 62% of the population are now overweight and 32% obese. Globally, the situation is so serious that during a conference in Moscow last month, World Health Organisation president Margaret Chan called it “an imminent disaster for health, for society and for economies around the world, without exception.”
Advances are certainly being made here, a fact recognised by Chan, who specifically thanked Argentina for its recent progress. Among recent measures, 6,000 bakeries nationwide have promised to reduce sodium in bread in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s ‘Less Salt, More Life’ project. Furthermore, by 2014 Argentina should be free of trans fats, which form from the hydrogenation process and raise cholesterol.
It remains to be seen whether these recent improvements will be able to reverse the growing national trend towards obesity.
To read about what locals think about keeping healthy click here.