14ymedio, Ignacio Varona. Havana. 2 September 2014 — In a few bites he polishes off the second pizza of the day. That evening he’ll dine on “bread with something,” accompanied by a shake and a sweet. For years now he has trouble seeing his feet while standing. His stomach hangs over his extremities and other, more lamented parts. Richard was slender in his youth, but a sedentary lifestyle and an excess of calories have caused his neighbors to call him “the fat man from the third floor.” His condition is shared by the more than 43% of the Cuban population which suffers from some degree of overweight.
Obesity, that 21st-century epidemic, also wreaks havoc in our country. In the last two decades, the scales have increasingly shown higher poundage. Does this mean that we’re eating more, or eating worse? Experts such as Dr. Jorge Pablo Alfonso Guerra declare that the first alarming signs of this affliction can already be seen in adolescence. Among the causes of Cubans storing more fat than they should, Dr. Alfonso points to “inadequate nutrition, a tendency towards less physical activity, and false standards of health and beauty.”
The common diet of the country, rich in carbohydrates and animal fats, is a legacy of our culinary heritage, but it is also a result of economic adversity. “There are days when all I eat is rice and hotdogs, because that’s all I can buy,” says Eugenia Suárez, who is 5ft-31/2in tall, and weighs 254 pounds. For years she has suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure and severe knee pain, due to her excess weight. Today she dreams of having bariatric surgery to reduce the size of her stomach.
Eugenia’s children are highly likely to be overweight, as well. Scientific studies have shown that the risk of obesity in children is multiplied by four if at least one parent is obese. A study produced in Havana by the anthropology department, assigned to the biology faculty of the university, determined that, between the ages of 6 and 15 years, 23% of girls and 21% of boys are overweight.
“It’s the children of those who suffered through the Special Period during their adolescence,” says Eloy R. López, endocrinologist and associate of the Institute of Nutrition and Nutritional Hygiene. “Their parents have an obsession with food and pass it on to their little ones.” According to this doctor, “the nutritional hardships that we endured in the 90s have triggered a compulsion towards constant food intake which, combined with bad culinary habits and poor food choices, create a very worrisome situation.”
Erroneous esthetic standards that glorify the “beer belly” and “love handles” make it difficult to treat males for this affliction.
“Sugar consumption is very high, because with it, people try to fill other needs,” López explains. “The same happens with the flour that is often used to make a food ‘go farther’ and feed several diners.” Every week, dozens of people visit his practice who want to make the needle on the scale go backward. His patients are “mostly women because among that population in our country, obesity is more common, and also because they worry more about their physique and tend to seek help.” However, he points out that “men are more difficult to convince that they have a problem. Erroneous esthetic standards that glorify the ‘beer belly’ and ‘love handles’ make it difficult to treat males for this affliction.
“I always encounter difficulties when recommending a healthier diet, because these individuals will tell me, ‘Doctor, I can’t afford that type of food,’ and they have a point, to some extent.” One grapefruit costs two Cuban pesos, the healthy pineapple can cost up to 15, and right now one pound of tomatoes costs no less than 20. “When I add it all up, a healthy diet would cost in one week what a professional earns in one month,” admits the doctor. To eat healthy in Cuba is expensive – but the problem isn’t only a monetary one.
Richard, the one whose neighbors no longer call by name, explains what it is that makes him consume so much junk food. “I live with my parents, my brother, his wife and child, the kitchen is small, and there’s almost always somebody frying or boiling something, so most of the time I have to eat out.” In the dining room at his workplace there are also no options that might help him lose weight. “Almost every day there is rice, sweet potato, custard…and the choice of vegetables is limited to cabbage for a season of the year.”
I am often disappointed that the best dishes on our menu, which are based on vegetables and fresh ingredients, are rarely requested.
It is rare to find anywhere in the country a cafeteria whose menu is not based on sandwiches, fried foods or highly-sweetened juices. Those that attempt to offer more healthy choices have a limited clientele and are forced to impose higher prices. “I am often disappointed that the best dishes on our menu, which are based on vegetables and fresh ingredients, are rarely requested,” says Miguel, a chef in a private restaurant on 3rd Street in Miramar. Instead, “fried pork morsels, pizzas, and sandwiches with mayonnaise are the most popular among diners.”
Following such indulgences, the more vain among the populace try to burn those calories in the gym, or seek faster and riskier methods to drop their extra pounds.
The Weight-Loss Business
“An obese society is a society disposed towards paying to lose weight,” affirms Dayron Castellanos, who sells diet pills. He earned a degree in physical culture and sports, but now he works in the weight-loss business. He sells via catalog such products as the Chinese-made Pai You Guo pills, whose directions for use state that they will promote “appetite reduction and effective evacuation.” To his list of “miracle remedies” are added ketones (supposed fat-burning substances), and green tea capsules.
Castellanos is not licensed to sell any of these products, most of which are not even approved by the country’s pharmaceutical authorities. His business is by word-of-mouth and classified ads. All that is needed is a phone call and a few “convertible pesos” and the customer goes home with what he thinks will be the solution for his “little rolls and spare tires.”
“I have had patients adversely affected by continued consumption of diuretic tea and other weight-loss remedies,” says Dr. R. López. “People want magical, immediate solutions, but to lose weight and keep it off, it is necessary to make permanent lifestyle changes.” However, the doctor’s opinion can barely be heard within the chorus of those hawking weight-loss products of all kinds.
Castellanos’ customers are basically members of Cuba’s emergent middle class. “This doesn’t mean that there are no overweight poor people, only that they can’t afford these pills,” says the prosperous entrepreneur. Many young women looking for quick fixes answer his ads, but older people do, too. In Cuba it is estimated that among the population older than 60, 51% of women and 30% of men are overweight to some degree. The risks of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes are causing many of them to be concerned about those extra pounds.
Declining health is a problem, but those suffering from obesity have a harder time emotionally with the social and familial repercussions of their condition. “I want people to start calling me by my name again, and not ‘the fat man from the third floor,’ ” Richard concludes, as he faces a cafeteria board advertising a special of ham-and-double-cheese pizza.
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison