Obesity rates in Chile have been increasing for two decades. Food marketing laws have decreased the population’s exposure to unhealthy food advertisements, but they have not reversed or even perceptibly slowed obesity trends. Obesity is now a “global epidemic” that health professionals say require education and preventive strategies.
Malnutrition in Chile is not a lack of calories but an overabundance of them from the wrong foods. The Global Nutrition Report, which claims to be “the world’s leading independent assessment of the state of global nutrition,” recently updated its Country Nutrition Profiles for 2022, including Chile’s. The report notes that Chile has made little progress over the last two decades towards achieving the global diet-related non-communicable disease (NCD) targets. NCDs are the number one cause of death and disability worldwide, and nutrition is a major risk factor for many of them.
Chile’s Nutrition Profile includes high sodium intake, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Obesity, however, is the one that affects the most. For adults, it is estimated that nearly 34 percent of women and nearly 28 percent of men are obese. Both numbers have risen almost 10 percent since 2000. The trends are similar for children and adolescents: obesity has been on the rise the last two decades; currently, more than 19 percent of boys and 14 percent of girls are obese. However, unlike the adult population, a higher percentage of males than females are obese.
Though obesity rates in Chile have only gotten worse, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently recognized Chile for its efforts to monitor the food market in its European Regional Obesity Report 2022: “Chile became the first country, in 2016, to implement comprehensive food marketing controls.”
For example, ads for high fat, salt, and sugar foods targeted at children under 14 are prohibited. There is also a ban on all unhealthy food advertising on television programs between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.
Diet-related non-communicable diseases
Malnutrition is an overarching term for undernutrition, obesity, and other diet-related NCDs, that also include type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke, and respiratory disease. According to the Chile Nutrition Profile, the greatest mortality rate due to dietary composition and weight results from coronary heart disease and cancer.
In addition, though malnutrition and obesity may seem contradictory, they go hand in hand and coexist in many households. As the WHO explains, low- and middle- income families consume more high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt, energy-dense, and micronutrient-poor foods. Such foods are a tradeoff between nutrient quality and low cost and longer shelf-life. Obesity is therefore often due to a lack of access to wholesome, fresh foods.
The burden on healthcare systems
The effects of obesity go beyond the individual and have significant economic impacts. A study published in the BMJ Global Health Journal in 2021 found that regardless of the economic and geographical context, the “economic impacts of obesity are substantial across countries.” The study indicates that these impacts will continue to increase if obesity trends continue.
Obesity takes a heavy toll on healthcare systems, both in terms of increased number of patients and in terms of the resources that must be devoted to a particular patient. For example, obesity alters a body’s pharmacokinetics (how the body responds to medication); as a result, obese patients often require more frequent administration of higher doses of medication and increased monitoring by nurses.
“As a society, we must work towards eliminating this epidemic through education and prevention, while also collaborating to deliver the highest quality, safe and effective care possible to the current obese patient population,” says a report by pharmaceutical distributor Cardinal Health.
Ishaan Cheema is an undergraduate student at the University of Calgary, studying Kinesiology, with a focus on Exercise and Health Physiology. He always had a passion for globalism and political journalism, which he explored through Model UN conferences, debate teams, and several other extracurriculars.