Cuba: An Overweight Country

By J. J. Nieves  (OnCuba)

Obesidad-en-Cuba-_24aHAVANA TIMES — Nearly half of Cuba’s population carries more than a few extra pounds. The most recent study reports that 43 percent of the population is overweight or obese as a result of sedentary lifestyles, high intake of fat-rich foods, sugar and salt and low consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Because of the bad eating habits encouraged by parents and grandparents, ten percent of Cuban children today classify as “prematurely obese.”

Excess weight also increases the risk of cerebral and cardiovascular conditions, which have become the second and third most common causes of death on the island.

The 2011 “National Survey on Risk Factors and Activities that Prevent Non-Transmissible Diseases” conducted by the Ministry of Public Health revealed that Cubans ate fruits and vegetables only 3.2 days a week. It seems that the country’s ingrained nutritional habits are not helping.

Obesidad-en-Cuba-_17-300x231“You have to die of something!” says Orestes, reclining into a chair of his cafeteria.

“Ok, go ahead and die, but try and die in peace and without all of the complications that come with obesity,” Dr. Alberto Quirantes, an endocrinologist at the Salvador Allende hospital (formerly “La Covadonga”), replies when told about Orestes’ remark, a justification that is fairly widespread.

Quirantes is also a consultant professor and author of a health blog. His greatest merit, however, is to have worked for two decades at the helm of Cuba’s one “day hospital”, aimed at the treatment of obesity in the country.

KILLER SWEETS

Thanks to the explosion of cafeterias and fast-food stands that followed the re-authorization of self-employment in Cuba, one can come across fried snacks, pizzas and sweets of irresistible colors and smells at just about every street-corner in the country. The availability of these snacks and the sustained tendency of farm and livestock products to go up in price lead to a situation in which the majority of people opt to buy what is more accessible rather than what is healthier.

Dr. Alberto Quirantes
Dr. Alberto Quirantes

Ministry of Public Health documents (such as the above mentioned survey) explain the result of this: “The high price of fruits, fresh vegetables and other food products of high nutritional value place these beyond the reach of the lower-income sectors of the population. On the other hand, the food industry and domestic commerce favor a segmentation of the supply and tend to sell mass-produced products with higher fat and sugar contents and low nutritional value (…) In addition, these food products tend to produce a feeling of satiety, have an agreeable taste and are inexpensive, such that they are socially accepted and preferred by a considerable section of the population.”

“I invite all those who claim they cannot change their diet because fruits and vegetables are too expensive to make a list of all they spend in junk food in the course of a week, then to multiply this by the year’s 54 weeks. They’re going to be shocked!” Quirantes states, in contradiction to what the majority maintains. Quirantes is known among his patients in Havana for his thesis, claiming that one should change rather than take away people’s food.

“People find it easier to repeat things rather than think about them. How much does a bundle of carrots cost? Ten pesos. How long does it last? A week. How much does a pizza cost? Ten pesos. How long does it last?” Quirantes leaves the question hanging, like someone who is aware they are in possession of a powerful argument.

“Traditional Cuban food – rice, beans, meat – is not healthy,” the endocrinologist insists. “The problem is people’s habits. Changing our diet is like changing our baseball team – it’s traumatic. But, if you’re shown the advantages of the new team, they may end up convincing you. We haven’t been able to change eating habits through teaching at schools, nor have we persuaded adults to do so.”

A HOSPITAL FOR “FATTIES”

Dr. Quirantes sees his patients at the day hospital in a “classroom” set up in the gymnasium of the endocrinology wing at La Cogandonga, a place he shares with his son Alberto Quirantes Jr.

Excercise
Excercise

Deliberately or not, the 30-square-meter locale lacks ventilation, and Quirantes makes everyone (including journalists following his class) sweat buckets while explaining the repercussions that “losing one’s figure” has on sexuality and health in general.

“When I got here, I had trouble walking because of my knees. I was feeling very down, sexually unmotivated,” Jackelin, vice-dean of a faculty for foreign students located in Cojimar, Havana, recalls. She is one of nearly twenty patients admitted to the hospital.

“One of my problems, the doctors told me, was that I wasn’t having breakfast,” she tells us. According to studies, nearly one third of the country’s adult population “skips” the day’s first meal.

“The food at my workplace is awful. I work with African students and we end up teaching them to eat like us. As of September, these kids stop seeing fruits at breakfast for, even though the markets are full of fruits, it’s very hard to get one’s hands on these through State channels,” the vice-dean explains.

Close by, Leriusky, employed by a tourism company, confesses she wasn’t eating anything in the morning either. “I weighed 175 pounds at one point. I’ve gone down to 148. My problem is that I’m very small. I wouldn’t have breakfast, I wouldn’t eat vegetables…I was in terrible shape.”

The two approached the day hospital in January, to start treatment (including general medical exams, lectures, physical exercise, localized therapy and long walks), next to twenty or so other patients.

Fast Food is what most people eat.
Fast Food is what most people eat.

In Cuba, obese individuals also have the option of undergoing bariatric surgery, an amputation of the stomach which can be carried out at several hospitals in the country – a procedure not all specialists recommend.

This clinic, rather, promotes a combination of healthy eating and physical exercise, as well as developing a spirit of self-care, motivating hundreds of people to run in the morning or afternoon or use private or State gyms, operating in nearly all of the country’s neighborhoods.

Jackelin has opted for this combination, having been infected with the enthusiasm of the vice-dean from Cojimar, who dropped 40 pounds after four months of treatment. Today, she feels more energetic, less tired, having begun to control a pre-diabetic condition that obesity caused her. She still has 60 pounds to go before reaching her ideal weight, but she feels she is much closer to achieving this than we she first started out.


24 thoughts on “Cuba: An Overweight Country

  • July 31, 2016 at 8:23 am
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    I don’t agree that “Most..” but I certainly concede that a large number of Americans eat poorly balanced meals. I would agree that most Americans simply overeat, balanced or otherwise, and therefore a large number are overweight. However, if your comment is too defend Cuba by comparing eating habits in Cuba to those of the US, then your comparison is foolish. Americans eat poorly because of poor choices. Cubans ear poorly because of a lack of choice. Big difference.

  • July 30, 2016 at 10:05 pm
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    Most Americans eat poorly balanced meals, have you seen the walking fat in our streets.

  • June 28, 2016 at 5:26 pm
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    What? I always heard they were starving, so now is about specific food. Well, Mexicans are pretty fat, but I think is more about their eating habits than veggies or fruit. Lol.

    By the way, it is illegal to steal cows, lobster traps, fishing at state or cooperative properties, etc, but you can eat it, if you could afford it. Our food staple crop is not corn, but rice and beans, we are from the Caribbean.

  • May 14, 2015 at 2:05 pm
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    Yeah, telling somebody, “Wow, how fat you are” is a complement, lol
    Being skinny is linked to be having a hard time in life.

  • May 10, 2015 at 10:52 am
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    hahaha! I come from a Jewish family. Try saying no to more food in that situation. I think many cultures are like that. i take your point, however, my husband is Cuban and certainly his family in Havana do not overeat even when there is food aplenty.

  • May 8, 2015 at 5:09 am
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    As a Cuban doctor friend once said to me: obesity in Cuba is the expression of malnourishment. The one sided diet with lots of sugars, processed rice, fatty meats, … and lack of vegetables, fruits, … results in high rates of diabetes, anemia, …
    Being fat in Cuba is not proof of adequate nourishment, but of bad nourishment.

  • May 8, 2015 at 5:05 am
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    and how do people find these and how can they afford them?
    You clearly have no idea of what the food situation in Cuba is.

  • May 7, 2015 at 11:38 pm
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    emagicmtman you forget the average earnings of Cubans when you refer to “low prices”. A hand of bananas is the “cheapest” at 5 pesos, guavas are 2 pesos, a mid-sized papaya 20 pesos, a large mango 3 pesos. 30 eggs 45 pesos, chopped up fatty pork 35 pesos a lb and a 200 gm loaf of bread 5 pesos. Yes these seem to be “low prices” for you and I. But if your earnings are 20 pesos a day? There are “low prices” for an expresso at El rapido – only 6 pesos. Cubans are dependent upon the subsidised rations and the things we are discussing are extras. Remember they have also to pay their electricity bill and buy clothing and footwear with those 20 pesos per day.

  • May 7, 2015 at 7:58 pm
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    Great. …and how exactly is a Cuban on the island going to follow your diet recommendations?

  • May 7, 2015 at 5:52 pm
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    Stick to cereal for breakfast, two cans of tuna in water for lunch and some almonds and then two green bananas for dinner. That is how I lost 25kgs and reached a normal BMI. If you feel like snacking snack on almonds or chew gum, healthy fat is friend not foe. Sugar is evil, so is stevia so never ever drink soft drink. Just water. Make sure to also put photos of your fat self on the fridge and pantry cupboard plus photos of yourself when you werent fat, it might make you think twice on whether your actually hungry or snacking because of boredom or sadness or whatever.

  • May 7, 2015 at 3:28 pm
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    I think you are all missing the point . A vast majority of Cubans cannot afford to eat fruit and veg and most other nutricious foods .You eat what is put in front of you …rice and beans and poor quality bread .I have been to Cuba 15 Times and travelled by bicycle throughout the country east to west north to south .Cooking facilities in most homes is meagre , propane gas is expensive if at all available ,dishes and cutlery scarce . We were once served scrambled eggs on margerine tops .Most Cubans are on stage one starvation on purpose ..the gov banned growing of corn for years…tbe staple crop in most other LA countries..and it is against the law to eat beef , lobster , shrimp , and to fish in many areas.
    Go to a local market , buy a bag of fresh fruit and veggies ..10 cuc or 250 mn , who can afford that when you only make 15 cuc a month…if you have a job at all !
    A starving person is a lathargic person with no desire or energy to revolt . ya ya ya they like it like that !
    I know us fat Canadians have a choice but Cubans no !
    I once asked a very skiñny fellow whose knick name was Flacco what he thought of all those fat tourists .He thought a moment then said ..I would like to be fat !
    With the Yanks on the horizon …Flacco , you aint seen nothing yet

  • May 7, 2015 at 3:23 pm
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    In Canada and I understand in the US, obesity is particularly prevalent amongst the poor. In the city where I live in Cuba there are not many obese people, but visits to Havana show a different picture. I agree with you about the deterioration in the quality of fruit sold in the supermarkets of the free world. Folks expect to eat strawberries year around and the stored peaches and nectarines would serve as Badminton balls. We have a mango tree overhanging and from the beginning of April can be awoken by bumps during the night. In the morning we go up onto the roof pick up the mangoes and have them for breakfast – the juice drips! But the seasonality and failure to produce a wider spectrum of vegetable crops leads to periods in the year when there is real scarcity. 5 pesos buys a 200 gm loaf or seven buns. Thin sliced pork is 45 pesos a lb. The higher the fat content of the various portions of pork, the lower the price with rendered down pork skin being cheapest.
    Feasting in Cuba is rare, so you were fortunate. But when the Cubans do have a fiesta – what a party!

  • May 7, 2015 at 2:31 pm
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    In the neighborhoods where I hang out when I’m in Habana (San Agustin, La Lisa, Arroyo Arenas) in season there are many locally grown fruits (e.g.bananas, guavas, papayas, mangos, limones, naranjas), readily available at low prices. Often, these are grown in the backyards; often, they are traded between neighbors. They are readily available at local farmer’s markets.
    Here in the First World we’ve grown accustomed to purchasing these fruits and vegetables in any season, which necessitates, of course, their shipment over great distances. Often, this requires that these fruit travel well (i.e. are tasteless hybrids that don’t spoil, or are genetically modified to resist pests, etc.) I’d rather have locally grown, in-season fruits and vegetables. Here in Vermont, locally grown, non-G.M.O., organically-grown fruits and vegetables are becoming ever more popular. Because of increases in local production, their prices are going down,(mostly, if consumers buy directly from the farmer, or buy shares in a C.S.A., etc.) In this way, consumers bypass the high mark-ups of huge corporate chains such Trader Joe’s, or botiquey “co-ops,” which price most of us out of the market.

  • May 7, 2015 at 1:36 pm
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    Interesting that even in the early 20tj century vegetables were not really much a part of the Cuban diet. The joke is “give a Cuban a vegetable or fruit and they’ll find a way to make it unhealthy. Take the Tostone or platanito frito. Lol

  • May 7, 2015 at 1:31 pm
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    Absolutely, portion control is crucial in maintaining a healthy weight. But although the “super size” craze is uniquely a US phenominon, large portion servings are part of the Cuban culture. I can’t tell you how many times my mother hammered home the need to eat everything in the plate. And unless a Cuban baby has rolls of fat he/she isn’t considered to be healthy! In many cases Hispanic, and Cuban women specifically, are not considered attractive unless they have some “weight on their bones”. It’s a cultural thing.

    I say this only as to educate those non-Cubans unfamiliar with traditional Cuban Culture.

  • May 7, 2015 at 10:43 am
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    Yes, but its the size of the portions as well. From hole in the wall paladars to popular restaurants like Los Nardos and El Flor deLotto WAY too much food is served. Lots of people take doggy boxes away but many more just eat what is put i front of them. By far the majority of restaurant-goers are overweight including their kids – great healthy future their parents are setting them up for…Not.

    A really bad Cuban-adopted US habit.

  • May 7, 2015 at 10:39 am
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    Yes, fruit and vegetables are seasonal in Cuba. They way they used to be everywhere before supermarkets and chiller ships and bananas that taste like crud because they were picked way before they ripened. People in Cuba have got out of the habit of eating (seasonal) fruit and vegetables also because before the rise of the small agromercado, the diet did not feature fruit and vegetables in any amount – it was all shipped off island or given to the hotels for tourists (who never ate them because the chefs, sadly, massacred the ingredients). Relatively, though, it is true they are expensive, but black beans and rice and jamon(ada) or whatever are not so cheap either – 5 pesos for a roll in the morning… its a question of education and getting people out of the rut of their diet. No broccoli perhaps, but just last month we (and the family there) feasted on sweet potatoes, lettuce tomatoes, cabbage, cucumber, red pepper, mango, pineapple, guava and more.

  • May 7, 2015 at 7:56 am
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    Cubans are not fatter because most of them are forced to walk long distances, as transportation is so problematic.

  • May 7, 2015 at 4:01 am
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    An El Rapido on every corner, and a Pizza shop on every second block will tend to have that effect! I was astounded by how many El Rapidos I saw when I was traveling through Ciego de Ávila Province in March. I don’t know if there are more of them this far east, or if there are just that many more this year than last, but whatever the reason it was amazing to see. And they were mostly all busy too!

    That said, if anything, the Cubans I know (for the most part) are still thinner than most Americans (and Canadians). The perception might be colored by the fact that we’re SO fat that seeing people in another country that are only a little fat makes them appear skinny in comparison.

  • May 6, 2015 at 5:19 pm
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    So, are they hungry or not? Lol

  • May 6, 2015 at 4:54 pm
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    Yes Moses, they are happy just to have something to eat. The rations include large amounts of sugar (two types), salt, and rice (usually low grade short grain)

  • May 6, 2015 at 4:50 pm
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    Fruit and vegetables are only available in Cuba on a seasonal basis. The article refers to carrots, they are seldom available. Cauliflower is unknown and broccoli is little known. There are no turnips, no courgettes and onions are expensive. We have a wok, but never use it because so few vegetables are available. The regime has in its endeavors to make their dismal agricultural policies into a promotional tool, extolled the virtues of “urban farming” to tourists. Translated into reality that means bed growing lettuce. Fruit is expensive for Cubans. 10 pesos for a pineapple, 5 pesos to a couple of mangoes, the cheapest being 5 pesos for a hand of bananas. So with the average Cuban earning 20 pesos per day with which they can buy a 200 gm loaf, a pineapple and a couple of mangoes. That school lunch of a bun containing a fatty meat mix and a glass of soya yoghurt is for many Cuban children the most nourishing meal of the day.

  • May 6, 2015 at 2:13 pm
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    The three worst things about the Cuban revolution: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Castro defenders never fail to extol as a virtue that there are no hungry children in Cuba. (Not true by the way) They seem to ignore that most of these children (and adults) have bellies full of congris. This is a Cuban dish of black beans and rice seasoned with animal fats. Most Cubans eat poorly balanced meals.

  • May 6, 2015 at 1:03 pm
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    that´s the result of a lot of Pizza and Fast Food around all the streets of my beloving Country. 🙁

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