Brazilian Obesity: The Big Girl from Ipanema

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When most people think of Brazilians, they think of Gisele Bündchen

With thousands of miles of sun-kissed coastline, Brazil is a beach nation, one where people like nothing better than to spend weekends and holidays with a cold one on the sand. But the chances of spotting suntanned beauties in tiny bikinis are getting smaller and smaller, according to a government study released this week. Research shows that the number of Brazilians suffering from obesity is growing. And the trend toward the fuller figure is most prevalent among women. "Obesity among women had stabilized in previous studies, and now there is an expressive increase," says Deborah Malta, the study's coordinator. "That is very worrying."

Some 13% of Brazilian adults are obese — 12.4% of men and 13.6% of women — according to the study, which was carried out last year among 54,000 people for Brazil's Health Ministry. Meanwhile, almost half (47.3%) of adult males and 39.5% of females are considered overweight. Those figures are still low compared with industrialized nations like the U.S., where more than a third of all adults are considered obese (a condition defined by the ratio of weight to height). But Malta says the trend is clear and that Brazil is slowly on the same path. In 1975, similar studies showed that only 2.8% of men and 7.8% of women were obese; just seven years ago, the numbers were 8.8% and 12.7%. (See pictures of what makes you eat more food.)

The study, carried out for World Health Day (April 8), covered many health-related topics and offered some contradictory figures as well. Although Brazilians are getting fatter, they are eating less red meat and more fruits and vegetables, Malta reports. They are smoking less and taking more preventive tests such as mammograms and pap smears. But they are using less sunscreen and drinking more, especially to excess and often when driving. (Read a story about kids, self-control and obesity.)

Nevertheless, in body-conscious Brazil, the nation of Gisele Bündchen, plastic surgery and minuscule bikinis, it was the obesity figures that caused the most anxiety. Any suggestion that the girl from Ipanema is not necessarily tall and tan and young and lovely, but could possibly be short and pale and fat and ugly, can cause a scandal here. When the New York Times reported in 2005 that Brazilians were getting fatter, the correspondent came under attack in the media as a gay, Brazilian-hating heretic.

Indeed, Malta calls that earlier report "disrespectful" and prefers to emphasize that Brazilians are relatively slim compared with their counterparts in the West. "I think Brazilians are still worried about their bodies. When we compare ourselves to the rest of the world, we are still much thinner," she tells TIME. "And remember, this is not just Brazilians that are getting fatter — this is a worldwide phenomenon."

Independent experts, however, caution against such nationalistic one-upmanship. Already one-quarter of hospital beds are taken up by people suffering from weight-related ailments such as heart attacks, back surgeries and hip and joint replacements, says Luiz Vicente Berti, president of the Brazilian Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery. Unless preventive action is taken to educate people, he warns, Brazil faces a sick and expensive future. "If we don't teach people how to eat properly and exercise, then in 10 years no one will have the money to pay the hospital bills that will arise," Berti says, adding that the number of stomach-reduction surgeries carried out in Brazil had risen 500%. "The U.S. can't solve its problem, and it is the biggest economy in the world."

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