Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Obesity an Increasing Problem in Cuba

For many, a balanced diet with enough fruit and vegetables is just too expensive.
By María del C. Quintana Hechavarría
  • Cuban street traders selling fish. (Photo: Santiago Guaguancó)
    Cuban street traders selling fish. (Photo: Santiago Guaguancó)
  • Trader selling fresh and smoked meats. (Photo: Santiago Guaguancó)
    Trader selling fresh and smoked meats. (Photo: Santiago Guaguancó)

Sedentary lifestyles and a diet based on subsidised carbohydrate-heavy foods are boosting obesity rates in the Cuban population, experts say.

Statistics show that more than four out of ten Cubans are classed as overweight. In 2007, it was just three out of ten.

Dr. María Elena Díaz of Cuba’s Institute for Nutrition and Food Hygiene, explained that fruit and vegetables were impossibly expensive for many people.  In contrast, state-subsidised food items were high in fat, sugar and carbohydrates. 

The Cuban government runs a rationing system where people are allowed to pay a subsidised rate to buy seven pounds of rice (3.2 kilograms), ten ounces (0.3 kg) of beans, half a pound of oil (0.2 kg), three pounds or 1.4 kg of white sugar, a pound (0.45kg) of brown sugar, five eggs, half a pound of chicken and a packet of spaghetti per person every month.

The total price of these products adds up to less than 30 Cuban pesos (just over one US dollar). Healthier food items bought outside the rationing system are more expensive, and are also less filling.

Alejandro del Río, 45, is angry about the medical advice he received about a special diet to treat his high cholesterol.

“The doctor has told me to eat vegetables, fish, minimal amounts of salt and no fat,” he said. “Just imagine, the man’s crazy! To have a diet like that in Cuba you have to be a millionaire.”

Del Río earns a monthly wage of 456 pesos, equivalent to just over 18 dollars.

He says the government-subsided package is only enough to feed someone for 15 days out of the month it is meant to cover. His salary – just below the national average of 500 pesos a month – means he can only afford to supplement it with rice, beans and eggs purchased at commercial prices.

On the open market, a pound of rice costs five pesos, 30 eggs come in at 33 pesos, and black beans are 12 pesos a pound. Vegetables are comparatively expensive, with cabbages and cauliflowers at 12 pesos each, a bunch of carrots ten pesos, and watercress or chard five pesos a bundle.

In general, fish can only be bought with Cuba’s parallel currency, the “convertible peso”, which is pegged to the dollar. Five pounds of fish – just over two kilograms –costs ten convertible pesos, or ten dollars.

“Who is to blame? Is it our fault for not having the correct eating culture, or the fault of the harmful delicacies that the system offers us at low prices?” asked Michel González, who will soon have to use a wheelchair due to his weight.

Fruit and vegetables are not only relatively expensive; they are not always on sale in the markets.

“In Cuba, vegetables are only available in season,” explained Havana resident Alexia Giménez. “Tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce and carrots aren’t available throughout the year, only for short periods. Sometimes I look for vegetables and there aren’t any. It’s the same with fruit – mango, papaya and guavas.”

Cuba’s weight problem is only getting worse. In 2007, a study published in the official Juventud Rebelde newspaper said 30 per cent of men and 31 per cent of women were overweight, and linked the problem to the rationing system.

In 2012, Pablo Alfonso Guerra, head of the Nephrology Society, a body concerned with kidney complaints, said 43 per cent of the population in Cuba was overweight or obese. That mean that in a five-year period, the rate had increased by at least 12 percentage points.

Experts say the rising trend has continued into 2015.

Dr. Díaz says obesity is a risk factor in chronic conditions like as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, and is a direct contributory factor in deaths from cerebrovascular and cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

Another physician, Dr. Alejandro, said the clinical measure used to calculate whether someone was overweight or obese was the “body mass index” recognised by the World Health Organisation. 

There is also the psychological impact. Milena Suarez is 27 years old and obese, and says she has found it hard to form romantic relationships. Her friends can also be cruel.

“Sometimes I feel discriminated against or left out of the group,” she said. “I know they make fun of me behind my back.”

María del C. Quintana Hechavarría is a freelance reporter in Cuba.