Modernization in Mexico and its Effects on Consumption Behavior
By Daniela Roldan Cabrera
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity is defined as the fatness level sufficient to increase risk of morbidity or mortality. In 2016, WHO reported that Mexico has the highest prevalence of overweight or obese children in the world. This meant that on top of other economic and social problems, in Mexico, one of three children and teenagers 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. This is a big issue, because the excess body weight from youth increases the risk of presenting obesity in adulthood. For a person, this does not only present a health burden, but also an economic one. In a developing country this ultimately affects quality of life. It is an issue that needs to be addressed.
There are a range of factors that have led to high rates of childhood obesity in Mexico. First of all, the economic development of Mexico has played a crucial role in rising obesity rates. It has led to a decrease in manual labor, a trend of migration to urban areas, increased in the purchasing power of workers and access to modernized food markets. When combined with internal factors within the country like parent permissiveness and insecurity, the effects of the negative diets experienced by children are compounded and obesity increases. It is these factors that will be deeply explored throughout this essay to show how they have led to one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the world.
Internal factors that increase obesity rates.
To begin with, it is important to understand how children access food. This mainly happens in their own home and at school. At home, one of the biggest causes for their negative diet is the permissiveness of their parents when it comes to allowing their children to make nutritional decisions and the role they give to “junk food”. These permissive feeding styles are most probably transmitted intergenerationally and reinforced through the culture in the family, making these practices even more difficult to change.
Many of the decisions about what food to consume and what diet to follow are specifically given to the children. They are often oblivious to what a healthy diet should include, and still, children are given full liberty and independence to decide how and what to eat. In this sense, children are seen by parents as “rational individuals who [are] capable of their own choices.” However, they often make these choices based on what they want at the moment. Additionally, researchers have seen patterns that show that food, especially “junk food”, has been set up as a reward mechanism for good behavior. This is a problem because there is an unhealthy incentive to a positive action that can affect eating habits for years to come. What is even worse, studies indicate that parents are often “ unaware of the risks associated with childhood obesity.” Therefore, when they do make an effort to improve their children’s health, it is often ineffective as they end up prioritizing relaxation activities and the improvement of parent–child relationships by giving their children more control over the food they eat.
An example of a family activity, seen as conducive to family bonding is going together to eat from street vendors. It has been ingrained in public life and normalized, as it is a very convenient way to access food. This is especially true in lower income families, as this food tends to be cheaper. The problem with this is that there is significant positive statistical association between children’s BMI (Body mass index) and the number of mobile food vendors frequented. Children around the highest percentage of street vendors have a 6.8% higher BMI than children around the lowest percentage of street vendors.
On the other hand, when at school, teachers place the responsibility for the health of the children on their parents. They assume that the adult is the one making the decisions, so when they try to also complement the process with introduction to healthy behaviors they see the parents as the ones who frustrated those efforts. However, the blame cannot be solely placed on parents. In public schools, healthy food options are virtually nonexistent, and most students only have access to low quality meals. For example, a lack of available of potable water has coincided with the increased proliferation of calorically enhanced (sweetened) beverages in school. Here we see that the problem is more nuanced than it may see at first glance. It is not only that children are making unhealthy choices, but also that the choices they can make are limited, and often unhealthy to begin with.
External factors that increase obesity rates
Now, it can be argued that certain consequences of modernization have exacerbated obesity. While Mexico developed economically, between 1999 and 2006, the country saw an increase of 226% in consumption of carbonated and sweetened drinks And this is not the end of it; many other factors influenced and led towards an increased consumption of unhealthy, high-processed goods that led to obesity.
First of all, the fact that Mexico is the closest Latin American country to the developed United States makes a difference in the exposure it gets to its markets. When economic development started in Mexico the United States took advantage of this untapped market. Historically, American fast-food chains are among the first Western companies to arrive when a country starts to expand its economic market, and Mexico was no exception: “The nearly 2,000-mile border with the United States and friendly trade relations between the countries make it easier to pump junk food into Mexico. After the United States, Canada, and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, processed food sales grew by 510% per year between 1995 and 2003. Currently, Mexico is the largest consumer of ultra-processed products in Latin America.” The West is exporting obesity to the developing world.
Despite all its consequences, modernization is not entirely a bad thing. Countries need economic development in order to succeed and for states to provide for their citizens. Developing countries like Mexico need to strive for economic growth that will allow their population to live a good quality of life in an ever changing world. Nevertheless, these countries need to have the opportunity to undergo this process within the right conditions and with proper help from developed countries. Having the NAFTA agreement would be an appropriate step in order to introduce Mexico to a global market, with the advantage of one of the most developed economies in the world close by. However, the United States has had a different perspective. They saw a possible new market where they could introduce their multinational companies, and increase their exports and their gross domestic production. They did not consider how the goods they were introducing to the country were going to affect the Mexican population. And even though Mexico already had social behaviors that could lead to obesity in children, the distinct influx of these highly processed goods did nothing to alleviate the issue and has only worsened it. It cannot be ignored that the United States and the goods it exports to Mexico has had a hand in the obesity epidemic in this country.
Another effect of modernization is migration to urban areas, where consumers are exposed to Western-type diets that have been imported primarily from the United States. More accessible goods are high in fat and refined sugar; less healthy, but more appealing to children given the taste. So, children who are given the choice of what to consume suddenly have a multitude of unhealthy possibilities from which to choose. They are choosing to consume more processed goods and sugary drinks. In contrast, they have an average intake of water that is below what is recommended. These choices are not based on nutritional knowledge, but on availability. As seen previously, it is entirely possible that children are choosing these types of beverages instead of water out of convenience, because sweetened beverages are easily accessible and access to water is limited.
Furthermore, migration to urban areas reduces physical activity. This is due to the lack of parks and open space for children to play that simply comes with living in an area more compact, with streets and buildings instead of open land. However, Mexico’s issues with public insecurity and crime, especially in low socio-economic areas of the city can also be a cause for children getting less time outside in the cities. There is a lack of perceived safety by parents and society. They are not comfortable with letting their children play out in the open. Especially without supervision. This ultimately limits the exercise a child can get. As a result, children opt for more sedentary activities linked to increasing obesity. Mexico’s wider social problems of insecurity, violence and corruption, make public spaces in low-income areas unsafe and perpetuate social inequalities in the country.
Another consequence of economic development is that jobs, especially in urban areas, require less physical energy. This is because “labor-saving capital equipment and information technology are introduced, often by foreign investors.” In rural areas, agriculture also decreases the need for human labor as more efficient capital goods are acquired and local production is substituted by imported foods, coming from the United States in most cases. It is worth mentioning that the local production would be much healthier than mass imports coming from the north, so the connection with obesity is still present.
In addition, as certain workers experience an increase in their income, they are able to increase their intake of “animal and vegetable fats and caloric sweeteners, while neglecting fruits, vegetables and grains. Experts call this nutrition transition and it is not experienced by middle to high income workers alone. The spread of global retailers has increased due to modernization. These stores provide consumers with large quantities of processed goods. The Economists states that “the scale of large supermarkets, their buying power, and their investments in information technology and control of data have enabled them to push down prices” The increased availability of food at lower prices allows for people of a lower socio-economic background to increase their energy intake as well. By definition, children will also increase their consumption of these foods, especially since a lot of these retailers purposefully market them towards children.
This is the reason why TV watching has often been linked with obesity. It is not only that watching TV is an inherently inactive pastime, but it exposes children to advertisements strategically made to encourage their consumption of high-calorie food. On average, 61 TV commercials per day are transmitted, of which 42% are related to the consumption of food items that are conducive to obesity. Furthermore, 67% of children spent more than 2 hours per day in front of a television, computer screen, and/or a gaming console. Modernization has allowed more families to have TV’s in their homes, but it might have a double negative effect on their children’s health if it is not managed: Less time to engage in physical activity and more exposure to unhealthy food.
So, how can this problem be solved? The solution proposed by the literature is to have a ‘multiple-intervention strategy’ that includes changes on the part of the government and the individuals (the parents). The former should focus on mass media campaigns, encouraging access to physician counseling, providing the proper infrastructure to supply portable water at schools and public places, create laws that demand proper food labeling, and regulate food advertising directed at children. A great example is that in 2014, the Mexican government implemented a sugary drink tax to discourage its consumption. It is the state’s job to provide for its citizens, and that means to aid its youth as well.
On the other hand, parents should complement this by encouraging their children to consume water and practice more physical activity. Instead of going to a street cart vendor every weekend, another possible bonding activity could be spending a day outside, going on walks or going to play a sport.
Doctor Simón Barquera, Director of the Health and Nutrition Research Center from the National Institute of Public Health, says that front-of-package labeling 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.” He has studied and written multiple papers on this issue and has experienced first handedly the negative impact obesity can have on children’s health and overall lives. According to Doctor Barquera, it is imperative for this issue to be addressed with the severity it demands and he has dedicated his career to advocating for these children.
In conclusion, the mixture of cemented Mexican behaviors around food and negative consequences of economic modernization has increased the obesity rates among children. Parents are complacent and permissive and allow children to make most of their nutritional decisions. Family bonding activities include actions that encourage the consumption of unhealthy food. On the other hand, modernization also comes with different effects like migration to urban areas and increased availability of processed foods at a cheaper price, that are mostly marketed towards children. They all contribute to an unhealthy environment that promotes the consumption of these goods and as a consequence, of obesity. Finally, because modernization is here to stay, it is imperative that attitudes toward food at home and at a government level change. Otherwise,the issue will continue to impact Mexican society with possibly unpredicted consequences for the future.
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