A Nasty, Nafta-Related Surprise: Mexico’s Soaring Obesity
Few predicted when Mexico joined the free-trade deal that it would transform
the country in a way that would saddle millions with diet-related illnesses.
SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico — William Ruiz Sánchez spends his days grilling burgers and slathering fried hot dogs with pepperoni and cheese at his family’s restaurant. Refrigerators and fire-engine red tables provided by Coca-Cola feature the company’s logo in exchange for exclusive sale of its drinks.
Though members of the Ruiz family sometimes eat here, they more often grab dinner at Domino’s or McDonald’s. For midday snacks, they buy Doritos or Cheetos at Oxxo, a convenience store chain so ubiquitous here that nutritionists and health care advocates mockingly refer to the city as San Cristóbal de las Oxxos.
The family’s experience in food service began in the 1960s, when Mr. Ruiz’s grandmother sold tamales and home-cooked food made with produce from a nearby farm; those same ingredients sustained her boys with vegetable stews, beans, tortillas and eggs. Meat was a luxury.
Since then, the Ruizes have become both consumers and participants in an extraordinary transformation of the country’s food system, one that has saddled them and millions of other Mexicans with diet-related illnesses.
It is a seismic shift that some nutritionists say has an underappreciated cause: free trade.
Mexico began lifting tariffs and allowing more foreign investment in the 1980s, a transition to free trade given an exclamation point in 1994, when Mexico, the United States and Canada enacted the North American Free Trade Agreement. Opponents in Mexico warned that the country would lose its cultural and economic independence.
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