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Michelle Obama in Mexico: Lessons on fighting childhood obesity

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s violent drug war tops the list of Mexican concerns and priorities. But a close second, if the Mexican media is any gauge, is Mexican obesity.

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s violent drug war tops the list of Mexican concerns and priorities. But a close second, if the Mexican media is any gauge, is Mexican obesity.

As first lady Michelle Obama continues her visit with her counterpart, Mexico‘s Margarita Zavala, it is not the beheadings or daylight shootings that have dominated their conversations – but the ways in which to empower children.

And with Ms. Obama as the face in the fight against childhood obesity in the US, gym class and healthy snacks are likely to be high on their list of talking points.

“It’s so good that Mrs. Obama is interested in this in the US,” says Juan Rivera, the director of the Center for Research in Nutrition and Health at Mexico’s National Institute for Public Health. Ms. Zavala, who is well-loved just as Obama is in the US, cares deeply about the subject, too, says Dr. Rivera, even if she isn’t the spokesperson of a crisis that Mexico is aggressively tackling. “I hope [Obama’s] presence can contribute to a more important role for the first lady here.”

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First lady’s trip captivates the public
Of course Ms. Obama’s first international visit unaccompanied by the president – which first included a stop unannounced in Haiti Tuesday – has captivated the public, the way Eleanor Roosevelt’s trip to Ireland and England did in 1942. That was the first time any American first lady traveled abroad unaccompanied. Jacqueline Kennedy similarly drew worldwide attention with her 1962 solo trip to India and Pakistan, says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, historian of the National First Ladies’ Library in Canton, Ohio.

It’s not surprising that the daily newspaper El Universal in Mexico ran a spread of all of the dresses that Obama has donned since becoming first lady, and included small shots of the magazine covers she’s graced. The level of attention a trip generates usually boosts popularity, says Mr. Anthony, as it did for Jacqueline Kennedy. But he adds, “The thing with Michelle Obama is, I don’t know how much farther her stock can go up.”

Her packed agenda Wednesday, included a tour of the world-renowned National Museum of Anthropology; a meeting with students and teachers at a low-income elementary school (some of the children danced and did calisthenics in her honor); an address to students at the Universidad Iberoamericana; a meeting with women leaders at the presidential residence; and a late dinner with Zavala and husband Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

Today she is to meet with US Embassy employees and young Mexican leaders before departing to the US.

She arrived here Tuesday night to a tarmac of singing and dancing children. Many hope that by the end of the trip, which centers around young children and students, both countries are inspired to take an even tougher stance against obesity. Obama, who has public approval ratings in the US of 71 percent, is leading the fight against obesity in the US, which studies show threatens the healthy future of one third all American children. Obama recently launched the “Let’s Move” campaign, which is a four-prong approach that seeks to provide children with exercise and healthy food options at school, as well as educate parents and give them greater access to nutritious groceries. Currently the US spends $150 billion a year to treat obesity-related health conditions.

Mexico’s strategy to fight obesity
Mexico is today one of the countries with the fastest growing rates of obesity. In less than 20 years, the rate of obesity in adult women tripled, to 32 percent in 2006, the latest numbers from the National Institute of Public Health. More concerning, 26 percent of school-age children now are overweight or obese – a number up from 18 percent in 1999. Junk food, stagnant lifestyles, and eating outside the home are the culprits. Mexicans today consume 20 percent of their total daily energy intake from beverages.

And so as Obama visits, she can teach Mexico about the programs she’s begun, and maybe even motivate Zavala to also become a spokesperson of sorts for the issue. But Obama can also learn a thing or two from Mexico, which many say is taking a tougher stance against obesity.

In January, Mexico enacted a national, 10-point strategy to trim waistlines. It is compulsory for government workers, Rivera says, and industry has signed on. Newspapers these days detail alarming statistics about diabetes. The day Obama arrived in Mexico, Mexico’s lower chamber of Congress voted on changes to the general health law, including ridding schools of junk food sales and requiring 30 minutes of exercise per day for students, even though many schools lack the facilities and facilitators to provide proper physical education.

“We’ll be done in Mexico before the US ever gets to it,” says Barry Popkin, a nutrition expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who advises the Mexican government. He says that’s because Mexico knows its health system risks buckling under the growing demand that obesity is generating.

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In the US, the first lady’s actions are a good start, says Dr. Popkin. “But I’m not sure if they have any teeth. We, in the US, are kind of going about it in a very laissez-faire way,” he says. “Our effort in proportion to our problem is tiny compared to Mexico’s.”

IN PICTURES: Michelle Obama in Mexico