Visualizing lessons learned in the global fight against obesity

Global health and development discussions often focus on lessons that the developed world can “teach” the developing world.

With the welcome decline in extreme poverty worldwide, many nations that once had to worry most about hunger now are struggling to combat the harm of over-eating, eating the wrong things and lack of physical activity.

In today’s post, we’ll be exploring how Mexico and the US can learn from each other in the fight against obesity.

Mexico is a hotbed of experimentation. As explored in a Humanosphere article last year, it recently began taxing junk food and sodas in an attempt to tackle its growing obesity problem.

Health policy wonks, researchers, advocacy groups, and the beverage industry are keeping close tabs on the situation to see what happens. The stakes for each of these groups are high—a recent Politico article theorizes that if the taxes succeed, this could re-invigorate the debate on soda tax in the US.

Last week, the chief financial officer of Coca-Cola FEMSA, the Mexico-based bottler, said that the entire beverage industry’s sales of sugar-sweetened beverages in Mexico had dropped by 5% to 7% following the enactment of the taxes in Mexico.

The following screen grab shows that Mexico and Argentina were the countries with the greatest percent of deaths linked to high body mass index (used as an indicator of obesity or overweight) in the Americas in 2010. Future updates of GBD, such as the update through year 2013 scheduled to be released later this year, will allow us to see how much progress Mexico is making in reducing deaths from high body mass index.

Percent of total deaths attributable to high body mass index, 2010

ObesitymapMexico’s taxes on soda and junk food have garnered more attention than its other efforts to lower obesity rates. A recent PBS video shows how public health awareness campaigns aired on television remind people to eat right and exercise each day. Former New York City Mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg helped finance the campaign.

Another program discussed in the PBS video is a grassroots initiative by Mexico City’s government that aims to encourage people to be more physically active. The program is setting up urban gyms throughout the city, installing 300 in 2013, and another 300 each in 2014 and 2015. It is also giving residents free checkups and medical and mental health advice.

Increased physical activity could help improve Mexicans’ health, especially by reducing deaths from diabetes, breast cancer, ischemic heart disease, stroke, and colon and rectal cancers. The dark blue shading in the screen grab below represents the portion of deaths from a given disease that are linked to too little physical activity.

Obesity PieChart Mexico

Note: The size of each box represents the share of deaths from a given disease or injury. The dark blue shading within the boxes indicates the share of deaths from little or no physical activity.

While physical activity is an important tool in the fight against obesity and makes people healthier, the US’s experience shows it isn’t enough to tip the scales in the right direction. Researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) found that while more people across the US were getting recommended levels of exercise, obesity levels continued to rise. The next two screen grabs show these trends at the county level. For example, the prevalence of recommended levels of physical activity increased in most counties in the US between 2001 and 2011, but obesity increased in an overwhelming number of counties during this same period (note difference in legends across the figures). You can view these trends in IHME’s US Health Map visualization tool.

Change in prevalence of recommended physical activity, females, 2001-2011

Female Physical activity in US countiesChange in prevalence of obesity, females, 2001-2011

Obesity in US counties

The increasing levels of physical activity in US counties are an encouraging trend, but the root of the problem is that Americans consume more calories than they are burning. Across the border in Mexico, the government is taking a multipronged approach to curbing obesity that goes beyond exercise, attempting to kick start weight loss through messages encouraging healthy eating, and imposing taxes to discourage people from eating unhealthy foods. Will Mexico’s efforts work? Public health experts around the world are eagerly awaiting an answer.

If they do, the US will stand to gain by learning from its approach.

Katie Leach-Kemon, a weekly contributor of global health visual information posts for Humanosphere, is a policy translation specialist from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

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  • MaureenABA

    With respect to
    obesity, this article points out: “the root of the
    problem is that Americans consume more calories than they are burning.” This is
    indeed a factor when it comes to obesity, as is genetics, age, and other
    variables that are not within our control. If we want to get serious
    about reducing and preventing obesity, it starts with education – not laws and regulation.
    Taxes and bans don’t change behaviors, but education-based approaches can teach
    people the importance of striking a balance between calorie intake and physical
    activity. This is the way to effect substantive change over the long-term. – Maureen Beach, American Beverage Association