Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Blame the U.S. for Mexico obesity?

By John D. Sutter, CNN
July 17, 2013 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
Some experts say fried versions of traditional foods are to blame for Mexico's widening waistlines.
Some experts say fried versions of traditional foods are to blame for Mexico's widening waistlines.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.N. report says Mexico is now more obese than the United States
  • John Sutter: Maybe we should blame Mexico's northern neighbor
  • He says U.S. trends like fast food and sugary soda have drifted south
  • Sutter: "The least the U.S. could do is be a better neighbor"

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- Experts are putting forward all sorts of reasons Mexico recently became more obese than the United States -- and one of the most overweight countries in the world.

Poverty, tacos, urbanization, soda. Those are the widely discussed culprits. And they, along with the choices people in Mexico make, are no doubt part of the story.

But there's an uberfactor here: Mexico's neighbor to the north. Could one reason for Mexico's growing, deadly obesity problem be that the country is unfortunate enough to share a border with the United States -- land of the Coke, home of diabetes?

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

I started thinking about that issue after seeing news bounce all over the Internet that nearly a third of Mexicans now are obese, compared with 31.8% of Americans, according to a recent report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Maybe U.S. trends such as fast food, fried food and soda drifted south.

It reminded me of a smart Economist story I read in April.

"Perhaps for Mexicans, the biggest problem is living next door to the United States, which means the fast food and super-sized culture has a particularly strong influence," the British magazine wrote. "So do the American food and drink giants who sell vast quantities south of the border and have already proved adept at fending off sin taxes and other forms of anti-obesity regulation in the United States."

I called up Dr. Juan Rivera, director of the research center on nutrition and health at Mexico's National Public Health Institute, to see what he thought of this theory.

Rivera didn't blame the United States, but he did blame "sugary beverages," which the United States produces and markets. Mexico's soda-and-sugar-water consumption numbers are staggering. The average Mexican drinks 163 liters of sugary beverages per year, Rivera said, which tops the world.

That's almost nine cans of soda per week.

A rising middle class as well as the prevalence of greasy street food, including tacos and quesadillas, also accounts for much of the problem, said Christopher Wilson, an associate at the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute. But Mexico's rich neighbor also plays a role in (here's the crucial part) shaping the country's tastes, he said.

"Potato chips are very popular, as is drinking lots of soft drinks," Wilson said. "But we see similar trends not only related to food and junk food but, at a broader level, commercial tests in Mexico are fairly closely linked to tastes in the U.S. And that's because of the intensity of cultural interactions" between the countries.

This influence applies to other countries, too, of course. According to the FAO report, 1.4 billion (yes, billion!) people worldwide are overweight and 500 million are obese.

The fast-food-ization of the world, and the health problems that have followed, started with America and have spread far and wide.

At a certain point, though, does it matter where the problem started?

Rivera, the public health official in Mexico, was quick to claim obesity as a problem Mexico has to own -- regardless of its origins.

"I think there is more influence of the fast food industry (and) the sugary beverages in Mexico than in other countries as a result of being neighbors to the U.S.," he said. "... But I think that globalization is such now that you see very, very similar things in many other countries, even in countries that are less developed. So I would not blame too much on the U.S. The problem is ours, and we have to solve the problem."

Some important steps already are being taken. Mexico banned soda in schools, Rivera said, and might soon propose new programs to combat obesity.

Mexico's close relationship with the United States, however, means that America and its corporate proxies should share the responsibility of implementing solutions.

"Let me remind you," Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, said in a June speech at a conference in Finland. "Not one single country has managed to turn around its obesity epidemic in all age groups. This is not a failure of individual willpower. This is a failure of political will to take on big business."

It does matter where these deadly trend originated -- and who started them.

The least the U.S. could do is be a better neighbor.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 2209 GMT (0609 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1802 GMT (0202 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1900 GMT (0300 HKT)
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1805 GMT (0205 HKT)
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT