UNICEF supports nutrition programmes in Belize because the factors that contribute to the problem of overweight and obesity are environmental, biological and behavioural.
In the region
The world’s children are getting progressively heavier with 18 percent of children and teens aged 5-19 overweight in 2018, compared to only 4 percent a few decades ago, in 1975.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, 7.3 percent of children are overweight by age 5; globally, this accounted for almost 40 million children in 2017.
In Belize, the highest percentage of children under 5 who are overweight or obese (11 percent ) can be found in Belize City—the majority (9 percent ) can be found in the Southside, where poverty is highest.
Elsewhere in the country, the Cayo, Orange Walk and Toledo districts have around 7 percent early childhood obesity, with Stann Creek (6 percent ) and Corozal (5 percent ).
Being overweight during childhood can lead to physical, behavioral and emotional complications such as gastrointestinal and orthopaedic problems and early onset of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Many Belizean homes do not have sufficient space for children to play and move around. Families may lack knowledge about healthy diets, purchasing unhealthy foods and beverages they see advertised in the media.
When it is available, healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy items, and food labeling can be incomplete.
The food supply is often low in fruits and vegetables, but high sugar and salt. Social norms and beliefs about large body size as an indicator of health, or a preference for “chunky” kids (and adults) may also play a role.
Yet overweight children can be stigmatized and therefore socialize poorly, resulting in depression, bullying or even reduced educational attainment.
Belize faces a “double burden” of nutrition crises: despite a decrease in the number of children whose growth is either moderately or severely stunted (from 19% in 2011 to 15% in 2015), the country is still among the top 8 Latin American and Caribbean countries with the highest stunting prevalence.
As many as one third of the children in the Toledo District (1 in 3) have stunted growth.
Nutrition problems begin early: UNICEF data shows that boys, children in urban households, children with mothers with higher educational attainment, and children in Mestizo/Latino households are less likely to be exclusively breastfed between the ages of 0 – 5 months.
While 3 out of 4 Belizean infants’ age 6-8 months receives solid, semi-solid, or soft only 66 percent of all children age 6-23 month receive dietary diversity. For children 6-23 months who were still breastfeeding, only 57 percent received this minimum diversity.
Under UNICEF’s new Strategic Plan where every child survives and thrives, Early Childhood Development and Health and Nutrition interventions begin with support for women, both before conception and during pregnancy, nutrition counselling and education for maternal energy and healthy fetal growth, weight gain monitoring, and levels of physical activity.
The Plan works to close the gap in good nutrition by focusing on Mayan and Garifuna children in the Toledo District who experience the highest rates of stunting and overweight, and underserved children in Belize City and Corozal who need improved access to health education, school feeding programmes and nutrition counselling during mobile clinic visits.
It includes Infant and Young Child Feeding practices (IYCF) and a Knowledge, Attitude and Practices (KAP) study to survey social norms and cultural attitudes towards health and unhealthy diets, exercise and overweight and obesity in children in Belize.
Pre-school and primary children in Belize are already being given information on nutrition literacy and encouraged to get enough exercise. Infants and children throughout Belize are monitored for adequate growth through height and weight measurements taken at clinics and baby and child-friendly hospitals. Adolescents are encouraged to access nutrition information and share this on social media and among their peers.
UNICEF supports the Roving Caregivers programme, rural health nurses, community health workers and others who give IYCF services; the WASH programme, a multi-secotoral body with UNICEF as a key partner, promotes access to clean water and proper sanitation for good health in schools and homes across Belize.
We work with other UN agencies, NGO’s, youth, consumer, business and professional organizations, academic and research institutions to ensure Belizean children benefit from initiatives and expertise spread across government and private sector educational, agriculture, health, water and sanitation, family and early childhood development, social protection agencies and community groups.
UNICEF has close linkages with social protection programmes such as BOOST (which provides cash transfers to families with demonstrated need) and the Food Pantry programme in several Belizean municipalities which subsidizes basic food supplies among vulnerable populations.
The Plan also includes a revision of guidelines for all health facilities that offer neonatal care and for the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes to be implemented in Belize. An integrated monitoring and evaluation plan (IMEP) will also monitor data collection activities related to childhood nutrition all over the country.
UNICEF supports nutrition programmes in Belize because strong bodies and strong minds mean stronger futures for Belizean children.