With all eyes on Brazil, it’s an opportune time to discuss one problem plaguing the South American nation: obesity. The problem finds its roots in the modern Brazilian diet, miles from the traditional cuisine of Brazil.
Obesity is a surprising problem for the country to have, especially when you consider that just a generation ago, 40 percent of Brazilian children were stunted from malnutrition, and in the mid-1970s, less than 3 percent of men and 8 percent of women were overweight. Today, almost 17 percent of Brazilian adults are obese, and more than half of the country's adults are overweight.
And Brazil isn’t alone in this flip of the scales – the number of overweight adults in Latin America has doubled to 50 percent since 1999, and 18 percent of Latin Americans are obese.
The Changing Brazilian Diet -- Complete with Ultra-Processed Foods -- Is to Blame
According to a recent story produced with the Food & Environment Reporting Network and The Nation, multinational global food manufacturers like Nestlé and Coca-Cola are at the heart of Brazil's obesity epidemic.
As sales of processed foods made by these manufacturers decline in wealthier countries, companies have shifted their attention to nations like Brazil, where, due to their efforts, soda sales doubled between 2000 and 2013 and processed food sales increased 48 percent overall.
In the early 2000s, door-to-door food salesmen began peddling to poorer urban communities, offering families two weeks to pay for the branded food items they selected. The ease of this model increased processed food consumption in Brazil exponentially.
Several years later, companies like Nestlé delved further into Brazil. In 2010, Nestlé created a floating supermarket christened the “junk-food barge,” which would allow Amazonians access to these foods.
“The local food system is being replaced by a food system that is controlled by transnational corporations,” Carlos Monteiro, professor of nutrition at the University of São Paulo’s School of Public Health told The Fern.
A Changing Food System in Brazil
Today, however, Brazil is poised to become a leader in healthy food policy.
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Last year, the nation issued new health guidelines that offered a refreshing new focus. The guidelines present a shift away from mere nutrients and instead concentrate on food itself, stressing the cultural, economic, and environmental importance of traditional, local food and focusing on the importance of the social aspect of food, as much as – if not more than – the nutritious aspect.
Data suggests that ultra-processed foods are the source of rising obesity rates worldwide, and that focusing on whole foods – rather than focusing on individual nutrients – is a safer, more healthful way to combat this problem. By highlighting local foods the way that Brazil has done – for example, with a federal school lunch program that requires 70 percent of funds be spent on natural, unprocessed ingredients, of which 30 percent must be produced by Brazilian family farmers – is a clear path to success.
The new guidelines also address sustainability, defining healthy diets as those that “derive from socially and environmentally sustainable food systems,” and highlighting the importance of a plant-based way of life. The recently released federal U.S. guidelines, meanwhile, make no mention of sustainability, even though the expert panel advising the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services in creating the guidelines recommended that reduced meat consumption for sustainability be addressed.
In 2014, the United Nations removed Brazil from its Hunger Map, giving much of the credit for this to the zero-hunger policies of President Luiz Inácio da Silva. The right to food – but also to healthy food – has surfaced in what was, just a generation ago, a nation wrought by poverty and hunger.
Situating the Brazilian Diet Globally
The changes to the Brazilian diet follow in the footsteps of other Latin American countries poised to overcome this problem, such as Mexico’s sugary beverage tax and Chile's and Ecuador’s required warning labels on unhealthy foods.
Unlike the U.S., Brazil has managed to nip this problem in the bud – whereas in the U.S., almost 60 percent of caloric intake is still coming from ultra-processed foods, in Brazil, ultra-processed foods only make up about 28 percent of citizens' total calorie intake.
Of course, there is still more to be done. Pockets of hunger pervade, particularly in indigenous Brazilian communities. These hunger pockets risk putting Brazil back on the Hunger Map, particularly with acting President Michel Temer’s agenda of austerity.
Still, with no major cuts being made to the national welfare program and the development and popularization of these new health guidelines, Brazil is undoubtedly poised for success when it comes to overcoming not only hunger, but an unhealthy lifestyle.
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