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Visualizing Mexico’s fight against obesity (and junk food)

Guest post by Katie Leach-Kemon, a policy translation specialist from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Flickr, Ed Yourdon

Mexico recently beat out the United States, though just barely, for having the world’s biggest waistlines. Not coincidentally, the Central American nation is also one of the world leaders in soft drink consumption.

In response to these two unfortunate trends, Mexican lawmakers appear likely to pass a 5% tax on junk food and 8 percent on soda. Through this tax, the government aims to generate billions of dollars in tax revenue and curb a growing obesity epidemic.

There’s a global push to increase efforts against so-called noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like obesity, diabetes and heart disease – all of which are fueled by poor dietary or lifestyle behaviors.

The food and beverage industry has, since the beginning of this push against NCDs, pushed back against many efforts manufacturers see as singling out ‘fast food’ as bad food. So it is worth taking a closer look at how Mexico fares in its fight against fat.

In Mexico, premature death and disability attributable to high body mass index (BMI), a metric used to measure overweight and obesity, increased 164% between 1990 and 2010, rising from the 7th leading risk factor in 1990 to the number one risk factor in 2010, as shown in the screen grab below from the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) Study 2010.

Mexico GBD

In 2011, Mexico was the second-largest consumer of soda in the world (second only to the United States) as shown in this map from that uses Euromonitor International data.

Soda Consumption

If this tax is passed, it will be interesting to use the GBD data to monitor trends in disease burden attributable to high BMI in Mexico. The GBD results will be updated annually starting in 2014.

In addition to using the GBD data to monitor trends in premature death and disability from overweight and obesity, these data can also be used to track the health impact of one of the tax’s main targets, sugary beverages. Sugary beverages are one of the 14 dietary risk factors measured by GBD along with other aspects of diet such as low fruit, nut, and seed intake and eating too much processed meat. While dietary risks as a whole were the third leading risk factor for early death and disability in Mexico in 2010 (shown above), within this category, sugary beverages were most important dietary risk factor (see screen grab).

Mexico Diet

Sugary drinks contribute to diabetes and accounted for 31% of disease burden from this condition in Mexico in 2010 (explore the data here). The negative impact of sugary beverages on health has only increased over time (see screen grab).


I spoke with Bernardo Hernández Prado, a Clinical Associate Professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, about the proposed tax. Dr. Hernández Prado was formerly the head of the Center for Research in Population Health at the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico.

“In Mexico, we first tried to lower obesity among schoolchildren by placing limits on the serving size for junk food,” Prado said. “It didn’t work. When the serving size was reduced, children just bought two bags of chips instead of one. This proposed tax on junk food and sugary drinks is a new experiment to reduce obesity.”

If passed, do you think the tax on sodas and high-calorie foods will succeed in reducing obesity and improving health outcomes in Mexico? Share your thoughts with us via Twitter and Facebook.


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