Study: Economic Crisis Improved Cuba’s Health

During the devastating downturn of the 1990s, a new report shows, the average Cuban lost 11 pounds and was far less likely to be diagnosed with diabetes.

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Enrique De La Osa / REUTERS

A Cuban flag is seen on a wall as a man rides his bicycle in Havana December 31, 2012.

The devastating economic crisis that gripped Cuba in the 1990s led to a marked improvement in the nation’s health, researchers have found.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union — and the subsequent termination of Soviet aid — and amid the tightening of the U.S. embargo, Cuba’s government was forced to implement tight rationing of food and fuel. But it also introduced  policies like commercial neighborhood gardens and the use of animals in farming in place of machinery. Cuba imported 1.5 million bicycles from China, and produced half a million more.

By looking at health statistics from that time—known in Cuba as the “Special Period”—researchers could see if such wholesale changes in dietary and exercise habits, across the population, made a difference to the nation’s health.

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Cuba has a long tradition of public health and cardiovascular research, and the researchers — from Spain, Cuba and the U.S. — were able to examine detailed data about body mass changes and diabetes cases between 1980 and 2010. The results, published in the British Medical Journal, show that during the crisis the average Cuban lost up to 11 pounds, and the country saw a rapid decline in death rates from diabetes and coronary heart disease.

But when the economic crisis ended in 1996,people in Cuba started to get heavier again, notes the study: although physical activity levels only declined slightly, by 2002 Cubans were enjoying their country’s sustained economic growth, consuming more food and drink than they were before the crisis, and putting on an average of around 20 lbs each between 1995 and 2010.

(MORE: Lessons in Socialism: How Cuba Can Become Relevant Again)

“By 2011, the Cuban population has regained enough weight to almost triple the obesity rates of 1995,” write the researchers, noting that they also saw a surge in diabetes cases.

Manuel Franco an associate professor at the University of Alcalá in Madrid who led the study, said in a video presenting the team’s results that top-down efforts to bring down the weight of whole populations—as opposed to leaving it up to individuals—can have real benefits. But he also notes that so far, no country has managed to reduce  obesity through public health campaigns or targeted mass treatment programs.

As for whether, in health terms, the Cuba economic crisis can be compared to the current financial situation in Europe, Dr Franco says such a comparison is problematic: while residents of communist Cuba live in broadly similar social and economic conditions, people across Europe differ greatly in their diet and level of exercise.

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Reducing caloric intake has been shown to improve health and longevity in animals for over 80 years. Human studies have also shown calorie restriction works. For example, Willcox, et al. published a paper on elderly Japanese Hawaiians based on their caloric intake. They found that as men ate fewer calories they had progressively lower death rates. However, when they ate less than 970 kilocalories a day, mortality started to increase.

Another study of urban Australian aborigines found that when they returned to their traditional dietary patterns, their risk factors for heart disease and diabetes declined sharply. Their new intake was only 1200 kilocalories/day. 

Vallejo put a group of people in a nursing care facility on a diet that consisted of their normal calorie intake one day and half as many calories the next day. Over the period of the study, their health was much improved compared to a control group that ate the same number of calories per day.

 During the Great Leap Forward Famine in China, it was found that many years later adults exposed to the famine (during conception or birth) had a longer life expectancy than thosewho were conceived after the famine.

During the Great Depression, food became scarce in the U.S. However, mortality rates fell for infants and virtually all age groups. There was also a big jump in life expectancy.

The industrialized world is overfed, which is obvious from the trend in increasing obesity. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for us to get away from thinking that abundant nutrition is good nutrition.

For a list of papers and books on nutrition and health, see


I lost my pregnancy  because I have not enough food and vitamins , did you tell me that's is healthy?


What a stupid, useless study. During the Special Period, we were all hungry. People were even going blind as a result of malnutrition. Please don't hail that catastrophe as any type of triumph.


I am quite sure obesity and diabetes were minor issues in concentration camps.

The whole thing is ludicrous. The "special period" resulted in large problems with vitamin A deficiency, anemia (especially children and pregnant women), polyneuritis and other hunger realated diseases.

The issue of diabetes in Cuba is links to the diet of all Hispanics exacerbated by the hunger in Cuba (lots of "filling" with rice and lots of energy from sugar). It is also a ploy in Cuba to get declared diabetic to get better food.

Hunger as a result of mismanagement  - Cuba now has to import 80% of iots food while it was a net exporter before Castro -  is no "good thing" for public health.

To single out a few items - based on rather dubious Cuban health statistics - is a gross misrepresentation of reality.