Malnutrition, in all its forms, includes undernutrition, inadequate vitamins or minerals, overweight, obesity, and resulting diet-related noncommunicable diseases.(15) It can lead to reduced immunity, impairing an individual’s ability to fight and recover from illness. At the same time, repeated infections can lead to malnutrition.

Causes of malnutrition in children

There are many different causes of malnutrition across Latin America*. According to The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)(77), there are three main factors for the cause of malnutrition

  1. Food and nutritional security: limited physical, economic and social access to nutritious food.
  2. Demographic, epidemiological and nutritional transition: generational, consumption decisions, lifestyles and habits of physical activity have changed, therefore, so have nutritional necessities.
  3. Life cycle: nutritional problems have life-long consequences, from birth.

*Excludes the Caribbean.

Malnutrition conditions

According to the World Health Organization(15), there are three broad groups:

  • Undernutrition, which includes wasting (low weight-for-height), stunting (low height-for-age) and (low weight-for-age); Undernutrition makes children in particular much more vulnerable to disease and death. In Latin America, figures(77) show that 6.5% of the population are undernourished. Children under 5 suffering from wasting in Latin America, are 1.3%.
  • Micronutrient-related malnutrition, which includes micronutrient deficiencies (a lack of important vitamins and minerals) or micronutrient excess; Iodine, vitamin A, and iron are the most important in global public health terms. In Latin America, micronutrient deficiencies are also common among children under six and women in childbearing age. The most common deficiencies are in iron, zinc, vitamin A and folic acid.
  • Overweight, obesity diet-related noncommunicable: this is caused by an imbalance between energy consumed (too much) and energy expended (too little). The World Health Organisation states is that globally, people are consuming foods and drinks that are more energy-dense (high in sugars and fats) and engaging in less physical activity. According to the Global Health Observatory (WHO), in Latin American the prevalence of insufficient health activity is 84.9% in adolescents between 11 and 17, while adults’ (18+) rate is of 32.13%.(79)

‘Double burden’ of malnutrition: obesity and undernourishment a rising challenge

Lifestyles in Latin America have experienced significant change over the past decade as a result of technology, free trade, as well as varied social and political changes across the region; all of which have had an impact on our population, including changing consumption patterns, dietary choices, including increased processed food. All of which has resulted in a profound effect on the population and the rising concern of what is known as ‘the double-burden’ of malnutrition; people being overweight as well as underweight and malnourished. According to FAO (The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World), above 70% of children in Latin America eat less than 5 portions of fruit a day, over 50% consume fast food at least once a week and drink at least one carbonated drink a day.(77) Over 60% do not practice physical activity.(78) On the other hand, access to healthy, nutritious food is physically and economically difficult.

Taking Action

Although most of the countries in the region have programmes to tackle undernourishment and/or obesity, most of them do not have one comprehensive strategy to tackle both. For example, they have individual strategies to tackle stunting and undernourishment and overweight and obesity.

Further information can be found here:

Latin America
Costa Rica
El Salvador