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Study says Cubans' weight loss in 1990s good for health
Cubans remember the 1990s as a time of dire crisis and hunger, but researchers have found that the resulting population-wide weight loss helped reduce deaths from conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

A team from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Loyola University and Cienfuegos, Cuba, studied the crisis triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the Cuban economy shrunk by 40 percent in four years.

Fuel shortages meant Cubans had to give up cars and use Chinese-made bicycles to get around, while their calorie intake plummeted.

The result was a decline in obesity, and also in the number of deaths attributed to diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, according to the study published last week in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Between 1997-2002, deaths caused by diabetes declined by 51 percent, coronary heart disease mortality dropped 35 percent and stroke mortality by 20 percent.

The economic crisis from 1989 to 2000 was a unique opportunity to observe the impact of population-wide weight loss in a country due to sustained reductions in caloric intake and an increase in physical activity, the researchers said.

"This is the first, and probably the only, natural experiment, born of unfortunate circumstances, where large effects on diabetes, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality have been related to sustained population-wide weight loss as a result of increased physical activity and reduced caloric intake," said Dr. Manuel Franco, a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health's Department of Epidemiology.

Cubans are still traumatized by the hunger they lived through in the early 1990s, sometimes joking that stray animals vanished from the streets of Havana because people ate them.

To this day, food is the main topic of conversation for Cubans, even though their calorie consumption is back up to international levels and obesity is making a comeback.

Even as Cubans were burning more energy, the lack of food resulted in a decline in energy intake from 2,899 calories per day in 1988 to 1,863 calories a day in 1993, the study found.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says the minimum requirement per person is 2,200-2,300 calories a day.

In 1987, 30 percent of Havana residents were classed as physically active. But by 1995, that figure had risen to 70 percent due to the widespread use of bicycles and walking in the absence of public transport.

Obesity in the southern coastal city of Cienfuegos fell to 7.2 percent in 1995 from 14.3 percent in 1991. Dr Franco said it is climbing back to that level, which is about half the US obesity rate of 30 percent.


Source: By Anthony Boadle, Caribbean Net News

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