Poverty and Obesity in Nosara District

More than one potential Nosara Food Bank donor has commented on the problem of obesity in Nosara, saying “they couldn’t be too hungry, fat as some of them are”.  Obesity is indeed a problem in Nosara, as it is becoming a problem throughout the world. The truth is obesity has nothing to do with people having access to excessive amounts of food, and everything to do with poverty.


Traditional Costa Rican Diet

The typical, high calorie, Costa Rican diet is rice and beans cooked with oil. The traditional refried rice and beans breakfast of gallo pinto is prepared with yet more oil, and the result is a very high-calorie diet.  Additionally, fresh fruit drinks usually contain large amounts of sugar.  This diet is traditional, yet traditionally, obesity has not been a problem in Nosara.  Three factors have changed this story: the availability of junk food, motorized transportation, and entertainment technology.   


photo by Dogymho https://www.flickr.com/photos/4u2lookat/26057412515/

photo by Dogymho https://www.flickr.com/photos/4u2lookat/26057412515/


Junk Food

Every neighborhood has a small store that stocks tiny bags of salty snacks, little cans of Coca-Cola, and bite-size candy bars.  These items are new to rural Costa Rica and are purposely sized so that even a child with only a few colones can afford to buy a sugary, fatty or salty snack.  Coupled with the availability of cable television advertising, buying junk food is seen as a way to embrace modern culture and many people have yet to realize how very unhealthy these products are.


Lack of Nutritional Knowledge

Also contributing to the prevalence of obesity is a lack of knowledge about nutrition. Many culturally typical foods could be made much healthier with some changes in cooking techniques, (brown rice substituted for white rice, etc.)  As in the rest of the world, understanding the extent to which fried, salty, and sugary foods really are harmful, and changing behavior, is a lengthy process.  



Motorized Transportation

Just forty years ago bicycles, much less motorcycles, were a rare commodity.  Everyone walked everywhere.  There was a rush-hour march of gardeners and cleaning ladies from Nosara Central to Guiones Beach every day.  Fast forward to today, and just about everybody can afford to own a thousand-dollar motorcycle purchased on credit.  The numbers of people walking has been drastically reduced.  In fact, walking has become hazardous due to the  increasing amounts of motorized traffic and accompanying dust.


Entertainment Technology

The Digital Revolution has been felt in Costa Rica, as it has across the rest of the globe. Most local families have cable television, and even if they cannot afford it, they certainly have a neighbor or nearby relative who does. Children still play soccer, but in general, “screen time” has reduced physical activity in Nosara much as it has in the rest of the world.   


Inability to Exercise for Weight-Loss and Fitness

Many of our families fall below the threshold of the national poverty line which is a household income of $155 dollars a month.  The majority are also caring for several children in addition to sick and/or elderly family members. Single mothers with jobs have little to no free time to devote to exercise. There is also a lack of affordable gyms and fitness classes in Nosara town given a poverty-level budget.  Sustaining a healthy lifestyle on less than two hundred dollars a month is simply not possible.


Emotional Eating

People who live in poverty suffer from constant stress as they worry about making ends meet.  For many of our single mothers with multiple children, depression and anxiety are common and untreated problems.  Costa Rica's health system in Nosara District is not equipped with either therapists or medications for these problems.  Emotional eating is a way for these women to address their symptoms and to “give themselves a treat”.


The next time I hear someone remark on the local obesity epidemic in response to my focus on hunger in Nosara, I will remind them of the amount of disposable income they have for fruits and vegetables and exercise classes.  Obesity among the lower-income families in Nosara in no way reflects an abundant availability of food.   Instead, obesity is the result of deficiencies in income to purchase healthy foods,  time to exercise, nutritional knowledge, and mental health care.




Linda Tarlow