I’ve been a bit quieter on her recently, and although this can be partly attributed to the chaotic struggle for spare time that we call ‘life’ in London, more recently it is due to me taking a break from my day job as a dietitian for a few months and moving to Argentina.
Latin America is my favourite part of the world, so when two friends asked me to join them on their trip, it was an easy decision (well, for me at least…maybe not for my employer!) We kept our plans for the trip deliberately vague, but the absurd levels of inflation here soon made it apparent that settling in the capital, Buenos Aires, long-term was not going to be financially feasible. Last time I was here, in 2009, everything was affordable, and I felt wealthy as a visiting Brit. Sadly this is no longer the case (the economic instability in the UK is nothing compared to what these poor people have to endure), so we decided to hire a car and live cheaply while seeing as much of this massive country as possible.
And after over 8000 km of this most memorable of road trips, we were consistently taken aback by the size, not only of the country itself (8th largest in the world, I believe), but of its inhabitants too. Since this is not a travel blog, i’ll skip the guanacos, glaciers and gauchos and focus instead on my nutritional interpretation of the country…
Argentinians are famously (or infamously, depending on how you see it) obsessed with image and beauty. They are not sheepish about plastic surgery, unlike us, and it is not uncommon to see men and women walking around with bandaged faces after a fresh nose-job. And indeed, my recollection of Argentinians in 2009 (particularly the ‘porteños’ of Buenos Aires) was one of style and elegance.
Again, however, I instantly noticed a change this time around. The Argentinian population, particularly in Buenos Aires but also all over the country, had gotten perceptively fatter. There’s no other way to put it. So I started looking into it, and indeed there is no shortage of articles confirming that this is a major and growing health concern in the country, that its child obesity rates are among the highest in the continent, etc etc.
It didn’t take too long to realise why this might be. The nation appears to have an extremely sweet tooth – large bottles of fizzy, sugary drinks are universally popular despite also being ludicrously expensive, and even things like instant coffee have vast amounts of sugar unnecessarily added to them. Burgers, milanesas (schnitzels) and deep pan, ultra-cheesy pizzas make up the majority of most menus, the standard ‘miga’ sandwiches use the most nutritionally unrewarding, bland white bread and ‘salads’ don’t generally extend beyond lettuce and tomato.
Argentina is famed for its steak and red wine, and while either of these could of course be detrimental to health if consumed to excess, I can’t help but feel the real damage is being done by the more day-to-day eating habits of this beautiful country.
It may well be that inflation and economics are partly responsible here. Fruit and vegetables, for example, are generally of good quality, but certainly not cheap, and essentially we’ve found it tough maintaining a healthy, balanced diet on a budget out here. Perhaps local families can’t always afford to make the healthy choices either. With this added to the fact that it’s basically too hot to exercise outside in summer (any hopes I had of beating my marathon PB this year might just have vanished), you don’t have to be a genius, or indeed a dietitian, to work out that waistlines are going to expand and health deteriorate.
It would be completely unfair not to mention that I’ve also had some of the most unforgettable culinary experiences of my life over the past few months, but in general, it has made me appreciate what we have in the UK. I would say that communication and comprehension of public health messages is far better back home than here, and I also know from my days in the food and drink industry, that communication between food companies and UK government is perhaps better than it is perceived to be. A good example would be the ‘Responsibility Deal’ which sees companies signing up to reformulate their products to help achieve government nutrition targets.
So, with my return to London looming large as I write this, I know I’m going to miss a lot that Argentina has to offer, but I also can’t wait to walk into a reasonably priced supermarket fruit and veg aisle or to see some variation in restaurant menus – we don’t know how lucky we are!