Chileans are rapidly eating their way to bad health, obesity and even terminal illness, according to a recent report compiled by the Institute of Food Nutrition and Technology (Inta). The report, which compared studies conducted by the National Statistics Institute (INE) in 1988 and 1997, revealed that the nation's diet has become increasingly unhealthy.

Inta dietitian Mirta Crovetto said Chileans eat badly, not because they do not understand proper nutrition, but because they do not consider a balanced diet to be an important element of their lifestyle. "Compared with the last decade, Chileans are spending a larger proportion of their salary on food. The difference today, however, is that people have diversified their diet, but to the detriment of their health. The nation is spending its money on food that isn't healthy," Crovetto said.

The average Chilean now consumes dangerously high levels of fats and cholesterol.  The consumption of cereals and vegetables decreased in all socioeconomic levels of Chilean society between 1988 and 1997. Meanwhile, the consumption of red meat increased in the lower economic classes but decreased among higher earners.

The most significant changes in the Chilean diet over the period were that monthly consumption of mayonnaise increased from 60 to 170 grams; alcohol consumption rose from 2.1 to 5.5 liters; and soft drinks consumption tripled from 10 to 30 liters.

Although Chileans are currently eating more fresh fruit and vegetables than they did in the 1990s, Crovetto said they only consume on average 200 grams of vegetables per day, which is half of the internationally recommended quantity.

"One of the best examples of the nation's unbalanced diet is the lunchbox of the average Chilean schoolchild.  Made up of biscuits, chocolate milk, cakes and candies, their midday meal is totally lacking in fruit and vegetables," the dietitian said.

Not surprisingly, this high-cholesterol, fatty diet leads to dangerous levels of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity and even cancer.  Government figures show that a total of 10 percent of Chile's pre-school children are obese, a figure that increases to 14 percent in children in their first school year.  Some 30 percent of pregnant women in Chile are also overweight.

Inta experts said the country's obesity rate is largely due to the nation's increasingly sedentary lifestyle and Chileans' infatuation with restaurants and fast food establishments.