Brazil, the land of suntanned, slender, bikini-wearing beauties and lean muscular macho men, is now facing a health problem more associated with the advanced economies of western Europe and North America – rising rates of obesity.

According to a survey by the nation’s Ministry of Health, nearly half (48.5 percent) of the Brazilian population was overweight as of 2011, up from 42.7 percent just five years before.

Moreover, the proportion of Brazilians who are obese leaped from 11.4 percent to 15.8 percent over that period.

[Health officials define “obese” as having a Body Mass Index of more than 30; while “overweight” means having a BMI above 24.9. The ideal BMI is somewhere between 18.5 and 24.9.]

There is a tendency toward increased weight and obesity in the country. It's time to reverse the trend to avoid becoming a country like the United States, said Health Minister Alexandre Padilha in a statement.

Now is the time to act to ensure we don't reach the levels of countries like the US, where more than 20 percent of the population is obese.”

Indeed, more than three-fifths (63 percent) of Brazilian men between the ages of 35 and 45 are overweight, making that age/gender group the most overweight segment of the population.
For women between 45 and 54, almost 56 percent are overweight.

Among Brazilian youth (between the ages of 18 to 24), 30 percent of men and 25 of women are overweight.

Overall, 52.6 percent of Brazilian men and 44.7 percent of women are overweight.

Padilha added: Adopting public policies for children and adolescents is essential to prevent people from becoming obese.”

The Ministry partially blamed the rising obesity rates on Brazilians’ increased consumption of sugary soft drinks and high-fat foods.

Interestingly, while Brazil’s economy has soared over the past few years, the ministry did not cite the country’s flourishing prosperity as a factor in the increased number of fat people in the country, citing instead that the government is promoting programs to encourage healthier diets and more physical exercise.

The Brasilia government is also coordinating with food companies to lower the content of fat and salt in their products, the ministry added.

Eating habits have not changed much over the last six years, it wasn't in this period that people started consuming full-fat milk and fatty meat, Padilha said, according to BBC.

In a commentary on Forbes Magazine on Brazil, Ken Rapoza wrote: “As Brazilians go from drinking milk from a plastic bag for breakfast with maybe a cookie, to maybe popping down a Red Bull instead, more and more Brazilians are eating like a middle class society: on the run, loaded with sugar, or just overdoing it at the buffet restaurants that dominate the São Paulo lunch hour scene.”

On the brighter side, the number of Brazilian males who lead sedentary lives dropped to 14.1 percent in 2011 from 16 percent in 2009.

In addition, the habit of smoking has sharply declined in Brazil over the past generation -- from 34.8 percent in 1989 to 14.8 percent in 2011.

The figures show that our ban on smoking in public spaces is contributing effectively to that decline, Padilha said.

Brazil’s neighbor to the south, Argentina, also has a serious weight problem.

According to the Argentina Independent, as of 2011, 18 percent of the population is obese, and 50 percent are overweight.