MEXICO CITY – Abraham Leon was getting a checkup when he found out he had high blood pressure and was at risk of developing diabetes.
On the spot, the 5-foot-6-inch, 240-pound lab researcher joined "Vamos Por Un Million de Kilos," (Let's Lose a Million Kilos), a national campaign to get Mexicans to collectively trim about 2 million pounds.
The project is one of several new efforts to fight obesity in Mexico, which is on track to catch up with the United States within a decade as one of the world's fattest countries, according to the Mexican government. Nearly half of Mexico's 110 million people are overweight, and the number of fat children has climbed 8 percent a year in the last decade.
"The longer we carry this excess weight, the more serious the problem becomes," said Dr. Samuel Flores Huerta, director of the Department of Community Health at Mexico's Children's Hospital. "Obesity is costing this country a lot of money."
Mexico is working to mandate more physical education in public schools and encourage employers and unions to give workers time for exercise. The administration of President Felipe Calderon says it has built or renovated more than 800 public sports facilities around the country. And the National Institute of Public Health is promoting food education and healthier choices in schools, such as fruits and vegetables instead of chips and soda.
Mexican cuisine has always been high in fat and carbohydrates. But for decades, people living in small villages could not grow enough crops to eat a lot, and had to travel long distances to gather more food.
Now, as the middle class grows and more people move to cities seeking work, diets have become laden with processed and fast foods. At the same time, doctors say, Mexicans spend more time in their cars or watching TV.
The country has the disease rates to prove it. According to government statistics, new cases of high blood pressure increased 24 percent in Mexico in just six years, from 2000 to 2006. New cases of Type 2 diabetes, believed to be linked in part to obesity, jumped 31 percent during that time.
Companies spend a lot to market unhealthy foods in Mexico, said Margarita Safdie, an investigator at the public health institute. In one so-called health-conscious promotion, a company offered a free bottle of water to anyone buying two soft drinks.
"It should be the other way around," Safdie said. "It's not that healthy food is much more expensive. What happens is that calories have become cheaper."
At Alvaro Lozano's taco stand in downtown Mexico City, customers line up every day for a choice of fatty meats on two corn tortillas washed down with a sugary soft drink. He said his customers are more concerned about money and time than about health.
Mexicans have also developed a taste for fast food.
"The food is good, and sometimes I don't feel like cooking," said Ana Lopez, 35, a Mexico City homemaker dining at Kentucky Fried Chicken on the Zona Rosa pedestrian mall.
"Vamos Por Un Million de Kilos" came out of a promotional campaign by the Televisa media company, launched after its sports department noticed a certain irony.
"Some of our sportscasters were talking about fitness while they themselves were obese," said Rafael Bustillos, Televisa director of sport. "It was after that that we decided to start creating awareness about this issue."
Advertisers sponsored spots encouraging viewers to eat healthy and showing easy and free ways to exercise in a country where few can afford gym memberships. Then the Mexican Institute of Social Security signed on, recruiting clinic patients like Leon for the weight-loss challenge. The campaign reached its goal in just four months with 2 million people.
"We only recommend that people lose a half to a full kilo (1 or 2 pounds) a week," said Dr. Ernesto Krug, a public health unit director. "More than that is not healthy."
The campaign is now starting a second phase, "Vamos Por Mas Kilos," (Let's Lose More Kilos) targeted more widely, including at adolescents.
Leon, 39, has dropped 40 pounds since May. Before his checkup, he ate tacos, burgers and whatever his wife prepared, and didn't exercise. Now he has learned to cook so he can choose healthy ingredients. He takes the stairs at work and walks at least twice a week with his wife. He also tries to be a role model.
"I have tried to tell my brother to do what I did. He's overweight," Leon said. "But he won't listen to me."
Leon plans to lose another 20 pounds. But already he worries less about heart disease and more about how to replace his baggy wardrobe.
"I think that it has paid off," he said. "Physically, I feel great and more secure with myself."