How hunger and obesity coexist in Brazil

. Jul 28, 2019
How hunger and obesity coexist in Brazil Brazilian vendor walks along Copacabana Beach carrying bags of potato chips for sale. Photo: Shutterstock

Despite being one of the world’s major food producers, Brazil experiences an unsettling paradox: the country is both underfed and overfed. Obesity levels are increasing at an alarming rate, having gone from 11.8 percent in 2006 to 19.8 percent of adults now (a 68-percent increase). These numbers could serve to corroborate recent statements by President Jair Bolsonaro and Citizenship Minister Osmar Terra, both of whom claimed that hunger is no longer a Brazilian problem.

Except it is.

</p> <p>According to the UN, Brazil is one of the 51 countries most exposed to risks of malnutrition—next to countries like Ethiopia, Indonesia, and various Western African and Central Asian nations. The organization says that hunger is significantly worse in countries where <a href="">agricultural system are highly sensitive to weather variations</a>—and Brazil fits the bill. Between 2011 and 2016, the country suffered severe climate events, ranging from <a href="">droughts</a> to floods.</p> <p>This paradox (which is not exclusive to Brazil) is mainly caused by social vulnerabilities—whether it is because people don&#8217;t eat as much as they need, or because they can only afford cheaper food, which is often over-processed and filled with addictive, junk products. That leads to a new type of malnutrition—you can be overweight <em>and</em> poorly-nourished at the same time.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/542128"></div><script src=""></script> <h2>Sugar and processed foods are to blame</h2> <p>According to the Health Ministry&#8217;s <a href="">latest survey</a> on obesity, published this week, obesity rates have grown in all age groups—but especially among 25-34 year olds, where it jumped 84 percent.</p> <p>&#8220;These rates are going up due to very high consumption rates of ultra-processed food, with high fat and sugar content. That&#8217;s why it is key to encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables among both children and adults,&#8221; says Wanderson Oliveira, the Health Ministry&#8217;s secretary for food vigilance.</p> <p>Indeed, Brazilians have a predilection for unhealthy food. A 2016 report by the EAE Business School shows that no other Latin American country consumes as much fast food. Worldwide, Brazil was the sixth-biggest consumer of junk—spending, on average, EUR 59.84 in 2014. Bear in mind that the amount represents about one-quarter of the minimum wage in the country.</p> <p>At the end of November 2018, the ministry signed an agreement with leaders of the food and drink industry to reduce the amount of sugar in their products by 144,000 tons by 2022. However, while the move was widely advertised by the federal government as a paradigm-changing deal, it should have little effect on how much sugar Brazilians consume.</p> <script src="" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <p>The agreement is non-binding—companies agreed to voluntarily change their sugar contents. Also, the rates which are established by the industry, in accordance with the government, are not much lower than what is already being used. Take sodas, for instance. The leading soft drinks in the market have about 10.5 grams of sugar per 0.1 liter, just under the new limit. And yet, sodas are singled out by the World Health Organization as one of the biggest villains in the fight against obesity.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="" class="wp-image-21366" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1102w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></figure> <h2>Obese and undernourished</h2> <p>While obesity is caused by multiple factors (such as genetics, sedentarism, and growing income—which leads to higher calorie consumption), scientist say that the overconsumption of high-calorie, nutrient-poor food is the leading cause of malnutrition in obese citizens.</p> <p>This phenomenon is particularly present in impoverished geographical areas, as increasing poverty rates see a worsened availability, quality, quantity, and diversity of food being consumed.</p> <p>Although Brazil is Latin America’s largest fruit and vegetable producer, the economy ultimately favors non-perishables. While the price of healthy staples like fresh greens and fish increased 946 and 770 percent, respectively, between 1994 and 2005, cookies and candy maintained inflation rates below that of the Brazilian real.&nbsp;</p> <p>“The economic crisis has put a lot of pressure on the average family’s food budget, encouraging people to choose ultra-processed foods over fresh ones and contributing to the country’s weight problem,” says Rafael Claro, professor of nutrition at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. “The crisis catalyzes the effects that food industrialization has already set in motion.”</p> <p>As described in the book &#8220;<a href="">Nourished Planet: Sustainability in the Global Food System</a>,&#8221; economic growth through farming and agriculture could represent a sustainable solution.&nbsp;</p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p><em>&#8220;The critical targets in the battle against inadequate nutrition—an increase in wealth and a more equitable distribution of that wealth—are among the best but least known economic tools for addressing these problems. According to the &#8216;World Development Report&#8217; published in 2008 by the World Bank, any percentage-point increase in the GDP generated by the agricultural sector is twice as effective in terms of reducing poverty as equivalent growth in other sectors.&#8221;</em></p></blockquote> <h2>Brazil has one of the best nutrition guides in the world</h2> <p>At the same time, Brazil&#8217;s Health Ministry has one of the best nutrition guides in the world. It aims at demystifying nutritional rules with practical eating principles. Rather than categorize different food groups, health authorities simply recommend a diet based on freshly-cooked foods.</p> <p>Fresh vegetables, fruit, and meat should form the basis of a healthy diet. Second to these fresh foods are minimally-processed foods including rice, beans, and nuts. Ultra-processed foods like chips, instant noodles, and soda should be avoided.</p> <p>The guide lays out different meal recommendations with regional ingredients: cassava cake for breakfast, collard greens with lunch, and grilled gammon for dinner. These are flavors Brazil’s older generation savors, but which many of today’s youth don’t recognize.

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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