Counting the calories

In Brazil, childhood obesity is rising fast.

Childhood obesity in Brazil is rising at record rates. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Health published statistics showing that some 6.4 million children are now classed as ‘overweight’ in the country. The ministry-commissioned study showed that one in ten Brazilian children up to five years old are now overweight, 3% are classed as ‘obese’.   

A biology professor at the State University of Goiás explained, “The key driver of childhood obesity in Brazil is poor nutrition coupled with a lack of sufficient exercise. Naturally, there are genetic factors at play too but government statistics show that this is not the principal reason for the startling increase in child obesity. There is no escaping the reality that Brazilian children are spending more time playing videogames, using smartphones and social networks than ever before.”

“The key drivers of childhood obesity in Brazil is poor nutrition coupled with a lack of sufficient exercise…There is no escaping the reality that Brazilian children are spending more time playing videogames, using smartphones and social networks than ever before.”

A biology professor, State University of Goiás, Brazil 

Better late than never, Brasília last year announced the “National Strategy for the prevention of Child Obesity” which aims to free up resources for local municipalities throughout the country to promote healthy lifestyle habits. A local approach is the right one – Brazil is a continental-sized country and naturally eating habits and obesity rates range significantly from state to state.  

Clearly, from a policy perspective, there is no magic bullet but a better communications campaign would help significantly. Current attempts are at best dire in no small part due to the constant changing of health ministers during the pandemic and health priorities that overshadowed the need to deal with obesity crisis.  

The situation is almost as dire in neighbouring Argentina explains a nutritionist and professor at the University of Buenos Aires, “In Argentina, almost 40% of the population has a low-quality diet and 50% of intermediate quality. In addition, more than 90% of households do not consume the recommended amounts of vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains or quality cereals and dairy products which has contributed to soaring rates of obesity.”

“In Argentina, … more than 90% of households do not consume the recommended amounts of vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains or quality cereals and dairy products which has contributed to soaring rates of obesity.”

Nutritionist and professor, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina

Indeed, less than 2% of Argentine households manage to simultaneously combine the recommended amounts of healthy foods. Across the region, there is also an excess consumption of food sources of carbohydrates with high glycaemic impact (especially flours, bread products and non-candeal wheat-based pasta) which is another important factor involved in the low quality of diet in the general population and in the poorest in particular. 

This is a pandemic of a different kind, the region’s healthcare systems are woefully ill-equipped to deal with it. In Brazil, the public healthcare system is unable to provide adequate attention to childhood obesity 

In a semi-collapsed public healthcare system that means that adults will develop health problems derived from being overweight. High blood pressure, heart diseases, liver and kidney diseases and even some cancers. It is high time for administrations across the region to take action before the issue snowballs into a major public health crisis at a time when governments lack both the political will and fiscal resources to do something about it.  

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