MEXICO CITY (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Children at school already mock six-year-old Yatzyri by calling her “fatty”, fuelling her mother Ana Laura Martinez’s worries about her daughter’s health if does not lose about 16 kg (35lb).
As Yatzyri fidgeted with a large pink hair bow, Martinez explained that tests so far have shown no signs of the 38 kg child having the illness that plagues her family - and ranks as Mexico’s biggest killer - type 2 diabetes.
“I’m diabetic. My dad died very young of diabetes at 39, my grandmother also died, my mother has it, my brother has it. It’s something in the family,” said Martinez, in the obesity clinic at the Federico Gomez Children’s Hospital.
“She needs to cut out some of what’s causing her harm so she doesn’t suffer from this ugly disease.”
She hopes the clinic will develop a diet plan for Yatzyri, who loves spaghetti, corn, and maize snacks sold on the street.
As one of the world’s fattest nations with over 70 percent of adults and a third of children overweight or obese, Mexico is acting as an early warning for countries around the world struggling to cope with a future of soaring obesity levels.
Globally, around 40 percent of adults are overweight and 13 percent obese, says the World Health Organization (WHO), with the surge in obesity in the last three decades presenting a major public health epidemic in both poor and rich nations.
While some Mexicans joke about their carbohydrate-heavy “Vitamin T” diet of tacos, tortas and tamales, the nation’s waistbands are being stretched by an addiction to cheap and ubiquitous junk food and increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
Add its standing as one of the world’s top soft drink guzzlers, and health professionals are bracing for a time bomb scenario with a high economic and social cost.
“When you get to treat obesity, you’re one day too late. The only way to solve this is prevention,” said Salvador Villalpando, a specialist doctor who runs the child obesity clinic where the image of a chubby boy is drawn on his window.
“There is no way of solving the problem of a population that is already obese. Those kids are very, very unlikely to lose weight in their own hands.”
While abuse or family breakdown are some of the many complex factors affecting obesity clinic patients, Villalpando said most Mexican children are eating adult foods by age two.
Most of the children at the clinic, who largely come from low-income families, already show signs of insulin resistance, said Teresa Siliceo, pediatric nutritionist at the hospital.
By the time they become teenagers, around a third are likely to develop preventable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, which can cause blindness, kidney failure and amputations.
The availability of junk food at schools and insufficient restrictions on advertising to children compound Mexico’s weight problem, said those working to tackle obesity, highlighting the heavy influence of major food companies.
Other culprits are found close to home with children growing up with extended families plied with treats by relatives.
“It’s a language of care, when we need to change or modify the habits, we have a lot of problems with the grandmothers or fathers,” said Siliceo, in a consulting room at the hospital.
Having money to eat at street stalls and buy snacks also carries a status value for many, said the nutritionist, who helped develop an app to aid obese children shed weight.
Ramping up public health campaigns and education around nutrition is crucial, said those working to tackle obesity.
“A kilo of mandarins costs you the same as 600 ml (20 ounces) of Coca-Cola or a few grams of potato chips. It’s education and access,” said Alejandro Calvillo, head of consumer group El Poder del Consumidor.
His group is taking the government to court over Mexico’s food labeling system it claims is tricky to grasp, fails to meet WHO guidelines and violates the right to health.
Unless Mexico sheds its excess weight, the nation faces hefty health bills in the future. The United Nations estimates the cost of dealing with an overweight population will be $13 billion a year over the next six decades.
Diabetes alone - which affects up to 14 percent of adults and kills around 100,000 a year - costs Mexico almost $5 billion annually, straining public health budgets and families facing expensive treatments such as dialysis, said think tank IMCO, the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness.
“It’s a complete drama for families without full or effective access to healthcare to treat these sort of diseases, they are families that could be sent to poverty,” said Fatima Masse, IMCO public health consultant.
Compounding Mexico’s nutritional nightmare is the dual-edged sword of obesity and under-nutrition, particularly in children chewing on the empty calories of fast food.
Rural communities are particularly at risk as some swap traditional diets for processed alternatives, said Calvillo, urging greater promotion of nutritional staples such as beans.
Children could swap sugary breakfast cereals, he said, for the cheaper, healthier amaranth grain, prized by the Aztecs.
A greater focus on “sustainable diets” would also help farmers better employ technology to grow a wide variety of crops with a low environmental impact.
For Yatzyri, however, there’s still time to change her diet to stop her falling victim to the disease plaguing her family.
“The doctor told me that she’s very little to be suffering something like that ... We’re in time,” said her mother.
Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/