Pressia Arifin-Cabo, Deputy Representative of UNICEF in Mexico, spoke to Mexico Health Review on how to combat Mexico’s childhood obesity epidemic.
Q: What is UNICEF’s approach to combating child obesity?
A: Figures demonstrate that 95 percent of obesity cases are attributed to poor nutritional patterns, therefore, the main priority to fight childhood overweight and obesity lies in campaigning and advocating good habits, but also in promoting breastfeeding, water consumption and physical activity.
In Mexico, 60 percent of adolescents do not do any physical activity and although it is a compulsory subject in schools, it is not enough to compensate for their calorie intake. We are developing strategies to promote physical activity. For example, a new social media project will strengthen the importance of physical activity alongside good nutritional habits among adolescents. We are also working on another initiative that advocates water consumption and accessibility. Several bad nutritional habits can be traced to the sugary drinks consumed by many children just because their schools do not have potable water.
Besides diabetes and cardiovascular problems, there are also many psychosocial effects associated with obesity. The way obesity is perceived in Mexico can incite bullying, which can also lead to children losing motivation, eating more or suffering other nutritional diseases such as anorexia or bulimia.
Q: How effective have measures such as the sugar tax or the ban on salt-shakers on restaurants tables been?
A: The sugar tax has contributed to fighting obesity but it is still low (about MX$1 or US$0.05). More investment is needed to change children’s behavior and even more so that of their parents. Working with children as agents of change could be promising because they can inform their parents and prevent them from buying food that is not permitted in their schools. In Yucatan, for example, children are only allowed to bring to school the foods that appear in a healthy food chart, which has obliged parents to make healthier choices.
Q: How can UNICEF fight dietary misinformation in Mexico?
A: There are several myths regarding breastfeeding. For example, some women start feeding their child with formula when they cannot pump milk because they believe they have an issue. The truth is that they do not know how to breastfeed.
Good nutrition starts in the womb so providing timely and accurate information to pregnant and lactating mothers is vital. Although one of UNICEF’s main priorities is the prevention of teenage pregnancy, we also work to make sure adolescent mothers get the right information to provide their babies with the best nutrition and the best beginning to life.
Q: What has changed regarding low breastfeeding rates in Mexico and the impact on child obesity?
A: Tackling obesity is a priority for UNICEF and breastfeeding is vital in combating obesity. Women are getting more and more information about the positive impacts of breastfeeding; however, awareness is only slightly increasing and there is still much work to do. UNICEF works closely with strategic partners such as governments, academia, NGOs and the private sector to support public health and advocacy campaigns. We participate in high-profile events like breastfeeding day, while also working locally with partners such as IMSS and the Ministry of Health.
It is not only about encouraging breastfeeding per se, it is also about making sure breastfeeding is a cross-cutting and integrated element of other programs. The main issue with breastfeeding lies not only in how people perceive it, also in how people experience it. For example, working mothers lack adequate breastfeeding spaces in their workplaces and must leave their child at home under a relative’s care. If a teenage mother does not receive the right information on how to take good care of her child, which has a lot to do with lack of sex education in schools, then it is easier for her to believe in myths. Nutritional education for adolescents is crucial, particularly for adolescent girls because they might become mothers one day. If these girls receive adequate and timely information, they could influence whether the next generation will be obese or not.