Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Show Drives Home the Reality of Obesity

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 9 2010 (IPS) - “I can’t even walk because I run out of breath. Food is my drug,” says a 31-year-old man who weighs 215 kilos. “I hide to eat; it’s something I can’t control,” says a 21-year-old woman who weighs 152 kilos.

Both of them are participants in Argentina’s weight loss reality show, “Cuestión de Peso”, which is raising awareness on the need to lead a healthy lifestyle in order to maintain a healthy weight.

The programme, produced by the Argentine subsidiary of Dutch production giant Endemol, is the local version of The Biggest Loser, a reality diet show that has become all the rage in more than 25 countries around the world over the last five or six years.

The show is a weight loss contest in which participants win prizes for shedding kilos with the help of nutritionists, workouts, and psychological assistance. The fourth season just premiered, and the audience continues to grow.

The public debate sparked by the show in its first season prompted Congress to pass a law declaring obesity an illness and requiring health care providers to cover the cost of weight loss treatments.

In this South American country, 54 percent of the population is overweight and 18 percent is obese, according to the Health Ministry’s second national survey of risk factors for non-transmissible diseases.

The same survey carried out in 2005 found that 49 percent of the population was overweight and 14.6 percent obese.

The survey also found that the problem is especially widespread among lower income sectors.

“Excess weight is an increasingly worrying issue in Argentina, since it not only affects a majority of the adult population, but because one out of four children ais now overweight,” Dr. Julio Montero, president of the Argentine Society of Obesity and Eating Disorders, told IPS.

Montero pointed out that among women over 40 in the poorest regions of Argentina, the northwest and northeast, obesity levels climb to 70 percent.

Obesity is a cause of chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, arterial hypertension, some kinds of cancer, and osteoporosis, all of which are on the rise in the region, according to the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO).

The national survey showed that over the last few years, physical activity has declined in Argentina, while a majority of the population eats an unhealthy diet. For example, only 4.8 percent consume at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The producers say the main objective of “Cuestión de peso”, which began to air in 2006, is not to entertain, but to raise the visibility of an increasingly widespread health problem, and to show people how to combat it.

The contestants share their problems with food and the limitations they face because of their obesity. Viewers become acquainted with young people suffering from high blood pressure, varicose veins or sleep apnea, as well as anxiety and depression.

“If the programme focuses on health issues and reaches the most vulnerable populations, it can be a useful tool,” said Montero, when asked about the impact the show’s message could have.

Some 2,000 people auditioned for the show, including some who travelled long distances to the capital from the provinces and slept in the line outside for two nights.

During the long wait, the hopefuls talked about their lives. Some had had trouble finding a job or concentrating on their studies, others suffered from social isolation, and many had tried and failed to lose weight.

The programme has a celebrity host as well as a team of doctors, nutritionists, psychologists and personal trainers who teach good habits, try to get the participants to eradicate bad habits, discuss the effects that excess weight has on health, and help the contestants improve their overall quality of life.

The participants who manage to reduce their weight by 10 percent each week receive cash prizes and the chance to continue competing with the scale. Meanwhile, viewers are also urged to adopt healthier lifestyles.

Many participants from earlier seasons have managed to keep their weight down. But not everyone. Of a total of 160 contestants who have been on the show, 75 are still in shape, the production company says.

“The programme is better than nothing, but what has to be changed is the nutritional model, which leads to nearly 60 percent of the population being overweight and putting their health at risk,” Montero said.

“Too much is expected of the individual,” he argued. “They are expected to improve their habits, to choose their food well, to read labels. But if there are foods produced with the aim of generating addiction, the entire responsibility cannot be laid on the consumer.”

He said that one effective measure to tackle the problem would be to subsidise the cost of healthy food in order to encourage healthier diets. But there are no such policies yet.

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