Like other Western countries, Argentina is struggling with an obesity epidemic. As young city dwellers adopt more diverse diets, the less well off rely on monotonous diets with low quality food.
BUENOS AIRES - Petrona Carrizo de Gandulfo, born in the 1898 and known familiarly to Argentines as Doña Petrona, was the first woman in Argentina to teach cooking recipes in the media. Her dishes were typically laden with copious amounts of sugar, butter and cream.
Dishes that may seem excessive today were common in the mid-20th century, and for a reason. They were made for Argentines doing physical work for long hours. As they expended more energy then, the average diet (which was an eating regimen, not a slimming plan), meant an intake of some 4,000 calories a day.
Today, that has halved, and as labels will tell you, percent daily values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. The challenge now, living as we do with technology and the Internet, is not eating enough, but sedentary lifestyles. Clara Iturralde, a nutritionist at the private Cliníc Integral in Buenos Aires, says it was "totally necessary" to change to 2,000 calories, as people do much less physical work. "Today, people walk less, take transport to work, machines have replaced people in various industries, and people spend many hours sitting at the computer, which means you need less energy."
The head of CEPEA, a research center for nutrition policies, Sergio Britos, says calorie intake has steadily dropped through recent history. Today, he says, the Argentine table "is monotonous" and "of low nutritional quality."
Fast, junk and sugary
Britos told Clarín that the monotony refers to the "regular presence" of a few foods that made up the bulk of all the food eaten. Eighty per cent of all calories consumed every day, he said, "comes from just 40 products." He listed the nation's top 10 foods including potatoes, bread, meat, chicken, milk, onions, sugar, bananas, rice and pasta, which he pointed out, largely included fast-digesting carbohydrates "of middle to low quality."
Argentines are looking to incorporate new foods that are "not processed, and more natural."
Other nutritionists commented to this daily on a typical Argentine diet today. Araceli Vallone said the Argentine diet remained "classical," with simple dishes prepared fairly fast. Argentines were not fond of vegetables, she said, with their intake mostly consisting of lettuce, tomatoes and carrots. They also "tend to forget" to eat fruit, she added.
This all changes at gatherings, she adds. "Our tradition is to get together in the Spanish or Italian style, and we know that the more food there is, especially if there is variety, the more is eaten, which doesn't help a country where so many people are obese or overweight."
But, she adds, Argentines are today looking to incorporate new foods that are "not processed, and more natural," in spite of the predominance in society of fast, junk and sugary foods. "I personally note greater awareness and interest among the general population, which will bring positive changes to the Argentines' table."
Woman preparing food for young people in Argentina
The pandemic effect
More Argentines, including vegans (1% of all Argentines), vegetarians (12%) and "flexitarians" (10%), are adopting a more sustainable diet. Flexitarians are those reducing their meat intake with a view to eliminating it altogether from their diet. Together, says Sergio Britos, "we're talking around 23% of the... population that has made or are making changes to their diet."
The change is gaining momentum, he said, in part because of the pandemic. "Probably the isolation we had for so many months has pushed a good portion of society toward buying ingredients and preparing food, returning to what's natural and including a greater variety of healthy products in their diet."
CEPEA estimates that 89% of Argentines eat badly or very badly, feeding principally on a restricted number of foods and of low nutritional quality. Nutritionist Laura Romano says water biscuits and bread were a constant at all meals. Bread is not bad per se, she says, "but having it with food means we lose count of how much we are eating." Iturralde cited other villains as including boxed juices and soft drinks, which for many "are their main source of hydration," while Vallone adds "biscuits and snacks."
Photo of Doña Petrona, cooking pioneer of Argentina
Labels and schools can help
Britos points out that 42% of Argentines are presently "poor" and that the trend in dieting changes and diversification pertained more to "younger city-dwellers, with medium to high incomes."
Iturralde says her clinic's task included "guiding a family or person to better administer themselves when buying food: choosing seasonal fruit and vegetables, reducing soft drinks and juices... the money could be spent on other foods. Planning meals is another issue that greatly contributes to more efficient, healthy shopping."
Six out of 10 are obese
All our consultants agreed that Argentines need to change their eating habits. The latest National Risk Factors poll (ENFR) found that six out of 10, or 26 million Argentines, were overweight or obese. Britos says "we need to significantly change the way we eat, which I think is an enormous challenge." He said schooling needs to include nutrition, but policies must also ensure healthy eating becomes affordable, labels were clearly visible and schools serve their pupils better meals.
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