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Why is obesity in Central America so prevalent? That is the question…

I’ve been traveling a lot over the past few months, and expect to travel a lot more. I’m writing this email from a Spanish School in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua (don’t worry, I’m redoing their website for them, lol). It’s been a while since I’ve traveled, but I remember feeling like obesity was pretty rare everywhere I traveled back in the 90s and early 2000s. So I was pretty shocked at all the moderately to very chunky people I’ve seen in Costa Rica and Nicaragua on this trip. Hey, I feel right at home! As a Costa Rican woman said after seeing a picture of me sitting in a chair with my MacBook Air,

“He’s fat, but he’s got a nice computer.” 

Uhh, gracias, I guess?

Anyway, my curious brain can’t help but wonder why, and as I wonder why, I thought I’d share my thoughts with the thousands of you who are also plagued with curiosity about this topic. So, why are Central Americans so fat?

First off, purely from an observational standpoint, obesity isn’t as big of a problem here as it is in North America. Definitely not morbid obesity. But it’s much closer than you’d think it would be considering the local diet is built primarily around rice and beans. I mean, really. MOST people eat rice and beans for MOST meals along with fresh vegetable salads, eggs, poultry, seafood, fried plantains, fruit, and other odds and ends.

Plus, people seem significantly more active in Central America. Most people spend most of the day doing light activity of some kind. It’s not normal to just sit around glued to a screen. At least not yet. It’s more normal to, at the very least, sit outside and just watch what everyone else is doing. Walking and cycling are still very common forms of transportation for most people at least in part.

What I’m saying is, I know very few Americans who get this much activity and eat this cleanly. So you’d think, following conventional logic, that obesity would be much more rare than it is. It’s not rare at all though. While most everyone under 25 or so is pretty lean (though certainly not everyone), I’ve hardly seen a single person over 40 that isn’t markedly flabadelic.

And so, using more unconventional 180D logic, let’s dive into some more likely explanations for the rise in size.

As you guys know, I believe body weight to be primarily unconsciously, involuntary regulated. I believe that because it’s a fact, and I’m not an idiot that viciously defends theories and beliefs that were disproven by that whole science thing two thirds of a century ago. Considering that fact, the only discussion that has any real relevance to the conversation is in regards to factors that influence the body’s weight-regulating mechanisms (hormones that regulate metabolism, appetite, desire for physical activity, and so forth). Let’s talk about the prime suspects one by one:

Sugar

I think the most commonly-held notion about the rise in obesity in Central America is the large increase in recent decades in sugar consumption–mostly from soft drinks. I didn’t see many Costa Ricans drinking soft drinks, but they love their fruit juices–with and without added sugar. I also don’t see many Nicaraguans chugging down large sodas, but they have a variety of weird starchy drinks they love that are typically heavily sugared. The national drink is pinolillo, which tastes kind of like Nestle Quik with a bunch of cornmeal mixed in with it. Mmmm, sandy!

I’m not an outright sugar hater, but it would be kind of foolish to completely rule this out as a factor. Drinks are desired when one is thirsty, not hungry, and it’s hot here. If you are satisfying your urge for fluids with calorie-laden beverages, it’s easy to imagine that you might short-circuit your body’s ability to regulate energy and consume more than it can burn off. Or so the logic goes. In reality, the extra calories taken with fluids should result in a reduced appetite for solid food or increased metabolic rate or desire for physical activity. And in most people that’s exactly what happens. In fact, kids consume more sugar than adults the world over, and they are leaner than adults by far on average. Does sugar consumption really have a multi-decade incubation time to cause obesity? Sure, it could. So could any highly-palatable food, maybe. But sugar and palatable food also might not be all that relevant. There could be something else affecting weight-regulation hormones.

Vegetable Oil

If I’ve learned anything about Spanish, it’s that things don’t always translate perfectly to English and vice versa. For example, if I look up the word “butter,” the dictionary says “mantequilla.” So if I want to say something about butter, I use mantequilla. But, if someone in Central America says “mantequilla,” they are actually not talking about butter, but a yellow, plastic-like substance made from chemically-altered vegetable oil molecules. Language learning right??!! So complicated!

Seriously though, the common cooking oils and spreads are made from vegetable oil. Vegetable oil, while it doesn’t appear to have any immediate, short-term impact on bodyweight, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it can have an adverse effect on the body composition of infants, which largely determines obesity proneness later in life, and long-term metabolic consequences that favor excess fat storage. They also eat plenty of lard and chicken fat, which is rich in similar fats.

Fluoridated Salt

While living with a Nicaraguan family, I was kind of alarmed by the fact that the offspring in the family I’m living with look absolutely amazing, while the parents are overweight, puffy with excessive water retention, and riddled with health problems. It’s not particularly comforting to eat the exact same thing at the exact same time every day as they do. But, an argument can be made, seeing how much healthier and more attractive their offspring are, that the kids actually received awesome nutrition and that the health problems of the parents might be related to something else–like living through some hard-ass times in their past: like real, actual food shortages, violence, and political instability.

But if there is one thing that raised the hair on the back of my neck about the food in Central America, is that it is all seasoned with salt from one company (as far as I can tell), and that salt has the word “fluorizado” on the front. I’m not quite fluent in Spanish (hey, I’m getting pretty close though), but I’m pretty sure that means “fluoridated.” Seriously people, every morsel of food that people are eating in Central America is full of supplemental fluoride. This could definitely be a factor in the broad-scale thyroid suicide that is turning young hotties into frumpy sacks of lard and beans.

Screens

Screens are definitely a suspect, as Central Americans are just as hooked on TV and Facebook as the rest of the world. It hasn’t been like this for long though, so it seems unlikely to be more than just a small factor in the overall scheme of things, especially in Nicaragua, which was extremely technologically primitive until very VERY recent times. With screens typically comes fewer hours of sleep and fewer hours of physical activity. Most people think the lack of physical activity is a bigger factor because it leads to a reduction in calories burned. I’m more concerned about the lack of sleep, as lack of sleep seems just as capable of altering the weight-regulating mechanisms of the body as a lack of exercise–and perhaps more so.

Lack of Food

Past famines are known to yield chubbier adults and chubbier offspring. Nicaragua hasn’t always had an abundance of food. And still there are lots of underdeveloped kids running around. As everyone knows at 180D, going from food shortage to food abundance again and again can be very fattening. What I’ve noticed too is that the people here just don’t eat much. I was trying to subsist off of the portions I was served at my homestay house for several weeks, but I noticed my temperature was dropping, I was super hungry in the evenings, my sleep started to suffer, and I was even getting some swelling in my ankles just like my homestay parents! Supplementing with a dozen store-bought cookies per day, a daily banana smoothie, and some Gatorade and fresh OJ still wasn’t enough to meet my needs. I also noticed that the only breakfast I felt decent after eating was a monstrous pancake with bananas and copious amounts of maple-flavored corn syrup product. Lately I’ve been sneaking out at night for pizza and feel much better. Two slices in the evening and I wake up at what feels like 5 pounds lighter with no fluid retention.

I’m fully over my whole “I’ll just eat like the locals!” sentiments. Western food is awesome. There’s a reason why only peasants eat peasant diets. They suck.

And while peasant diets may be associated with leanness, I’m definitely not seeing it in Central America.

Meanwhile, the ridiculously lean and attractive tourists that visit San Juan del Sur (where I’m at now) from all over the world are crushing Western food and taking in 1,000-2,000 calories per day from alcohol alone (to better describe what the tourists are like here, I have often wondered if I was teleported into another dimension where I’m an extra in a neverending version of Point Break. I have yet to witness any bank robbers with U.S. president masks or meet anyone named Bodhi, but I feel it could happen at any minute). Then again, my Spanish teacher tells me that Westerners NEVER put sugar in their coffee and talk about soft drinks like they are the devil incarnate. They also exercise a lot harder than most local Nicaraguans, hiking and surfing all day and twerking and fornicating all night. So there’s that.

And I never would have thought that dieting could be a factor in anyone’s chubbiness in Central America like I know it to be in North America, but sure enough, my 21-year old Spanish teacher has wildly fluctuating weight patterns, started dieting in her early teens, just finished her 5th day of eating absolutely no food at all, and is sick with a lingering cold. She also mentioned making herself vomit when she ate back in the day, and prides herself on not being hungry. I was wondering why she was always complaining of being cold and looked like she was giving Chewbacca a piggyback ride whenever her shirt rode up her back. I get it now. And it’s too bad. She is really an incredibly cool person. I’ve tried to convince her of the dangers of doing what she’s doing, but she laughs at me hysterically. She has a perfect body and I don’t, so, you know, what would I know?

Conclusion

No real conclusion, just sharing some thoughts and observations from the 180D World Tour. Hopefully it can lead to some interesting conversation in the comments. What are your observations from countries outside of your own?