Up or Out: How What You Eat Affects How You Grow

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    Costa Ricans are markedly taller than they were 50 years ago, but that’s not the only direction they’re growing.

    Let’s face it. Costa Rican’s are known for many admirable things, but, alas, height is not one of them. Nevertheless, there is hope; studies show that today’s generations are growing up to be notably taller than their grandparents.

    In 2004, the Ministry of Health demonstrated that contemporary 19-year-old males were on average 11 centimeters taller than those in the year 1966. While women did not show quite the same growth, their average increased too. Similar patterns are evident in both Europe and the northern American countries, which lends to the question of rather immigration patterns play a role in recent changes to Costa Rica’s demographics.

    Growth Spurts

    Before jumping to conclusions, we’re not necessarily witnessing an evolutionary event, nor can the growth be completely due to immigrants from Europe, Canada and the United States. Instead, says Eduviges Sancho of the Research and Technological Development Department, children between the ages of 0 and 5 have the same growth potential regardless of genetics or geographical location. Increased height averages worldwide have been linked to improved nutrition in recent decades. Sancho continues:

    [quote_center]“Feeding conditions, breast feeding, drinking water and a healthy environment are vital to the early years of development.”[/quote_center]

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    Whereas other countries such as the U.S. are finding themselves at a loss for the fresh fruits and veggies necessary to fulfill a healthy diet, a weekend trip to la feria will prove Costa Rica is at no such disadvantage. The tico market is saturated with a variety of affordable, nutritious foods — though a trip to the supermarket may not prove as fiscally satisfying.

    Thankfully, the country’s economy has also been generally on the rise, especially when compared to 25 years ago.

    Together with increased medical awareness and better transportation, these conditions have contributed to taller children and thus higher national averages.

    Not Just Tall

    Unfortunately, Costa Rican’s have not only been growing up but out. Earlier this year, La Nacion published that the average body mass index (BMI) for the country was 26.5, whereas the healthy range is considered between 20 and 25. Furthermore, their research — based on none other than the World Health Organization’s Global Status Report on Health 2014: Noncommunicable Diseases — showed that 62% of the nation’s population was overweight or obese. That’s a 16 point increase from the results 20 years ago!

    The epidemic applies equally to ticos and ticas, suggesting it’s more a general societal issue than any single practice. Rocio Sanchez, Directorate of the Caja’s Health Services Projection, explains:

    [quote_center]”We have a high fat intake, low consumption of fruits and vegetables, many highly sweetened beverages and sodium.”[/quote_center]

    Recent studies from the University of Costa Rica and the Costa Rican Nutrition and Health Research Institute show that Costa Ricans are now choosing processed, pre-packaged foods and drinks over fresher, healthier options —  a trend that is absolutely bewildering considering the substantial price difference between local markets and conventional grocery stores. Nevertheless, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) ranked Costa Rica fifth among Latin America’s 20+ countries for consumption of processed foods.

    What’s Really Going On?

    So how did Costa Rica go from a trend of healthy heights to an epidemic of worrisome widths? Similar to the first form of growth, the second also is related to both food availability and economic power. The World Bank states:

    [quote_center]“Although Costa Rica was able to press the poverty rate down from 20.2% in 2006 to 18.5% in 2009, for 2010 and 2011 the average percentage of people living in poverty increased to 21.3 and 21.6, respectively.”[/quote_center]

    Our modern world has entered a new phase where the impoverished are not necessarily encountering the same problems as before. Some studies have in fact linked poverty to obesity due to the fact that some of the least healthy foods are also often the cheapest.

    Furthermore, when the local sense of security is low, individuals may be less inclined to take advantage of free forms of athletic activity such as running or biking. Instead, gyms become safe spaces for healthy habits, but they too cost money.

    That same study by PAHO showed that Latin American sales of products such as candy, ice cream, spread, sauces, cereals, sodas and salty snacks increased 26.7 percent from 2000 to 2013. According to Enrique Jacoby, PAHO’s Advisor on Nutrition and Physical Activity:

    [quote_center]“These products are not designed to meet people’s nutritional needs… They are engineered to have long shelf lives and to create cravings that can completely overpower people’s innate appetite-control mechanisms and their rational desire to stop eating.”[/quote_center]

    Such foods are literally addicting and have food many of us into overindulgence, despite Costa Rica’s access to superfoods and a healthy, accessible diet. Be smart. Say no to these tricksters, and encourage the nation’s next generation to grow up and not out.

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