America is known for its competitiveness, and tends to compare itself to other countries in anything it can measure. In one competition, despite their best efforts, Americans are lagging behind some of their nearest neighbors. According to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.S. has lost its place in worldwide obesity rankings. Mexicans have outgrown Americans, posting a 32.8 percent obesity rate last year, compared to 31.8 in the U.S.
But this is not a case of the biggest loser. Obesity in the U.S. is still on the rise, according to a Gallup study. Mexico has just grown more quickly.
Other countries outdoing the US in obesity rates are Egypt, at 34.6 percent, Kuwait at 42.8 percent, and several Pacific island nations. The Micronesian island of Nauru tops the list at 71.1 percent, although country rankings can change depending on whether rates of obesity or excess weight are measured. The body mass index (BMI), a comparison of weight to height, adjusted for gender and age, measures obesity. A BMI over 25 is considered overweight, while one over 30 is considered obese.
Nutrition experts agree the rise of processed and high-sugar foods is a leading cause for the change in Mexico. The traditional Mexican diet is based on corn tortillas, beans, and chili peppers, with regional fruits and vegetables mixed in. The Standard American Diet (SAD), which includes processed snacks, sweets, and sugary drinks is now mainstream in Mexico.
Not only is the Mexican population as a whole gaining on the world in obesity rankings, former President Felipe Calderon announced in 2011 his country had the world’s highest childhood obesity rate, at 38 percent.
Mexico is starting to battle the problem on a large scale. Several groups are pushing Mexico to be more demanding with food labeling regulations, which are currently much looser than regulations in the U.S. The Mexico Power of the Consumer group hopes to run a national advertising campaign encouraging healthy eating.
Looking for more detail, nutritionist and researcher Katia Garcia found “one factor is that Mexicans consume more soft drinks per person than any other country. That’s a lot of sugar.”
Soft drinks are widely blamed for obesity, both in Mexico and around the world. The emphasis on healthier drink choices has led to a slight decline in North American’s consumption of sugary soft drinks—Coca-Cola Co. announced a 1 percent drop in total sales volume for the last quarter in North America, caused partly by a 4 percent drop in soft drink volume. In January the company made a switch to advertisements pushing its lower calorie drinks and showing people having fun burning off soda calories.
But the slight drop in Coke sales is not a global indicator. Soft drink sales continue to rise in the rest of the world, and sales of pre-packaged food grew last year by several percentage points in every region of the world, according to the study. The study also found overweight and obesity rates have risen significantly since 1980 in every region of the world.