More than 4 million children under 5 have overweight in Latin America and the Caribbean
In the region, prevalence of childhood overweight, including its most severe form, obesity, is above the global average, warns the latest regional report from UNICEF
PANAMA CITY, 31 August 2023 - A new UNICEF report shows that, in Latin America and the Caribbean, overweight affects more than 4 million children under 5 years of age and almost 50 million children and adolescents aged 5 to 19 years. The report “Childhood overweight on the rise. Is it too late to turn the tide in Latin America and the Caribbean?” presents the latest data and regional trends on childhood overweight and highlights UNICEF’s response across the region. The report also provides recommendations for public policy and the private sector, including awareness-raising actions for different stages of life and for prevention of childhood overweight.
The regional trends are alarming and represent a serious public health problem for Latin America and the Caribbean. The prevalence of childhood overweight (including its severe form, obesity) is currently above the global average and, over the last two decades, has increased at a sustained rate.
In children under 5 years of age, the prevalence of overweight increased from 6.8 per cent (3.9 million) in 2000 to 8.6 per cent (4.2 million) in 2022, with the global average sitting at 5.6 per cent. In children and adolescents aged 5 to 19 years, the prevalence of overweight rose from 21.5 per cent (35 million) in 2000 to 30.6 per cent (49 million) in 2016 (with the global average at 18.2 per cent).
Evidence shows that overweight prevents children and adolescents from developing optimally and thriving. Children who have overweight or obese are at greater risk of continuing to have these conditions into adulthood, as well as developing non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer) and having a shorter life expectancy.
“We should all be concerned about the rise of child and adolescent overweight rates in Latin America and the Caribbean. We’re well-aware that, when childhood obesity continues into adulthood, it can cause chronic diseases that generate a high economic burden on families and countries in our region. The most cost-effective way to end this public health emergency is prevention during early childhood and adolescence,” -
Garry Conille, Regional Director for UNICEF in Latin America and the Caribbean.
One of the main determinants of childhood overweight is obesogenic food environments, which promote the consumption of unhealthy and ultra-processed products (those high in sugar, fat and salt) and limit physical activity. These environments are widespread across the region, especially in urban areas, where more than 165 million children and adolescents are estimated to live. Repeated exposure to obesogenic food environments influences personal preferences, food choices and unhealthy eating habits, as well as physical inactivity in children, adolescents and their families, contributing to childhood overweight.
UNICEF recognizes that preventing childhood overweight must be a collective effort and collaborates with governments, civil society organizations, academia, the private sector and other United Nations agencies to prevent childhood overweight’s causes. UNICEF has supported initiatives in various countries and territories in the region aimed at generating scientific evidence for children’s rights-based decision-making, as well as improving food environments and strengthening regulatory frameworks, policies and strategies for preventing childhood overweight. Moreover, UNICEF has actively promoted and supported breastfeeding, and advocated for healthy eating and physical activity.
“We’re faced with the urgent and collective task of turning the tide of childhood overweight in Latin America and the Caribbean. From now on, we must further accelerate the prevention of overweight in the early stages of life, putting the well-being and health of our children and adolescents above all else,” added the Regional Director.
UNICEF calls on all sectors to ensure children and adolescents in Latin America and the Caribbean have access to healthy nutrition and thrive. Together, we must:
- Declare the prevention of childhood overweight as a national public health priority. Promote the contribution of key actors such as the public sector, academia, civil society, the private sector, the involvement of children and adolescents as agents of change; and foster collaboration between sectors.
- Conduct a country analysis of childhood overweight and its causes; select and implement a package of comprehensive, evidence-based, cost-effective interventions with a child rights approach; and promote the participation of adolescents and young people.
- Increase public investment and resource allocation for the prevention of childhood overweight, including surveillance, monitoring and evaluation systems.
- Strengthen regulatory frameworks, policies and programmes related to child overweight prevention.
- Improve food environments, through the implementation of food policies for adequate nutrition and child health, and effective measures to ensure access to and affordability of healthy food for all families with children, especially those with low incomes.
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