Diabetes has become the leading cause of death in Mexico, according to a new study released by the World Health Organization, WHO.
The United Nations agency claims diabetes rates in the Latin American country began surging just over two decades ago, around the time the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, came into force.
An estimated 80,000 people die each year in Mexico from diabetes, WHO also reports, adding that nearly 14 percent of adults there suffer from the disease.
“Diabetes is one of the biggest problems in the health system in Mexico,” Dr. Carlos Aguilar Salinas told NPR during a recent interview.
“It’s the first cause of death. It's the first cause of disability. It's the main cost for the health system.”
Why has diabetes become such an issue in Mexico after NAFTA? The answer is simple: cheap imported junk food.
Since its 1994 inception, NAFTA has allowed U.S. and Canadian restaurants and processed food manufacturers to sell products at rates much lower than their Mexican counterparts. This creates a situation where fastfood chains like McDonald's and processed food brands like Nabisco are able to dominate the country’s market, given that their products are more financially accessible.
And in a country with rising poverty, inequality and food insecurity, cheap imported junk food is often the only nutritional option.
In 2015, WHO reported that Mexico is the leading consumer of junk food in Latin America — the average person there consumes 450 pounds of ultra-processed foods and sugary beverages each year.
The organization also reported that until recently, Mexico was the largest per capita consumer of soda in the world, with the average person drinking 36 gallons each year. The U.S., Argentina and Chile are now the leading consumers of soda.
“Diabetes used to be a disease of the rich,” WHO’s Mexico chief Dr. Gerry Eijkemans also told NPR during a recent interview.
“In Western Europe and the U.S., it was really the people who had the money who were obese, and now it's actually the opposite.”
Nearly 60 percent of Latin Americans are overweight, according to a UN report.