1 in 5 children under five are not growing well due to malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean, warns UNICEF

14 October 2019
© UNICEF/UN0343186/Pazos
UNICEF/UN0343186/Pazos

Poverty, urbanization, climate change and poor eating choices are driving unhealthy diets that are physically impacting almost 9 million children under five in the region

NEW YORK/PANAMA, 15 October 2019 – An alarmingly high number of children under five years of age are suffering from the physical consequences of poor diets and a food system that is failing them, UNICEF warned today in a new report on children and nutrition. In 2018, in Latin America and the Caribbean, 4.8 million children under 5 were stunted, 0.7 million wasted, and 4 million have overweight, including obesity.

The State of the World’s Children 2019 report finds that in 2018, almost 1 in 5 children under five in Latin America and the Caribbean were either stunted, wasted or overweight, or a combination of two of these.

These trends reflect poor growth, and putting children at risk of increased infections, weak learning skills, low immunity and, in many cases, death. Almost 4 in 10 children under five in the region suffered from deficiencies in vitamins and minerals such as iron and iodine, further undermining their growth. Of the 18 countries in the region with data, Guatemala is the worst off with 1 in 2 children under 5 not growing well. Saint Lucia has the lowest percentage, with 1 in 10 children.

“In Latin America and the Caribbean, far too many children are eating too little healthy food and too much unhealthy food. Across the region, stunting, wasting and obesity affect the same communities, sometimes the same household. For many families living in poverty, daily nutritious meals remain either unaffordable or inaccessible,” said Bernt Aasen, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Young children have inadequate diets

The report warns that poor eating and feeding practices start from the earliest days of a child’s life. Though breastfeeding can save lives, for example, an increasing number of children are fed infant formula. Sales of milk-based formula grew by 72 per cent in countries such as Brazil, largely due to inappropriate marketing and weak regulation.

Then, as children begin transitioning to soft or solid foods around the six-month mark, too many children are being introduced to the wrong kind of diet. UNICEF’s analysis finds that almost 2 in 5 children between six months and 2 years in Latin America and the Caribbean are not fed the adequate food that supports their rapidly growing bodies and brains. In 2018, 1 in 5 children of this age was not fed any fruits or vegetables at all.

In addition, nearly 3 in 10 children don’t eat any eggs, dairy, fish or meat, which are important sources of protein and micronutrients and essential for growth. Legumes, such as beans and lentils, are rich in fiber, protein, iron, copper, magnesium, manganese and zinc. Yet, only 1 in 2 children were fed legumes.

Overweight levels are growing

In Latin America and the Caribbean, 4 million children under 5 have overweight. The report cites the alarming increase in overweight levels, especially among older children: almost 1 in 3 children 5-19 years old in Latin America and the Caribbean have overweight. The country with the highest prevalence in the region is Argentina, where almost 2 in 5 adolescents have overweight.

Child overweight can lead to early onset of type-2 diabetes, stigmatization and depression, and is a strong predictor of adult obesity, with serious health and economic consequences.

Inappropriate marketing of unhealthy foods, the abundance of ultra-processed foods, especially in increasingly crowded cities, as well as remote locations, and increasing access to fast food and highly sweetened beverages are driving growing overweight and obesity around the world.

Most marginalized children are paying the highest price

Poor families tend to select low-quality food that costs less. Because of poverty and exclusion, the most disadvantaged children face the greatest risk of all forms of malnutrition. According to the report, children from the poorest households are not eating foods from the minimum number of food groups that can support their rapidly growing bodies and brains. Stunting, when children are too short for their age, is highest among poorest households as is the prevalence of overweight. In Latin America and the Caribbean, regional and national averages mask inequities, which can be very large in some countries. In Guatemala, 1 in 2 children under 5 is stunted. Of the poorest 20% of children, 3 in 5 are stunted and of the richest 20% almost 1 in 5.

“Creating a healthy, nutritious, safe, affordable and sustainable food environment for every child is within our reach. Everybody in Latin America and the Caribbean can contribute, from governments to food industry, from school managers to parents,” said Bernt Aasen, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The report also notes that climate shocks, loss of biodiversity and damage to water, air and soil are worsening the nutritional prospects of millions of children and young people, especially among the poor.

UNICEF is issuing an urgent appeal to governments, private sector, donors, parents, families and businesses to help children to grow healthily by:

  1. Empowering families, children and young people to demand nutritious food.
  2. Driving food suppliers to do the right thing for children, through better labelling, incentivizing and facilitating the provision of healthy foods, and other strategies. 
  3. Building healthy food environments for all children, including through introduction by governments of proven policies such as sugar taxes and stronger controls on marketing of unhealthy foods.
  4. Mobilizing supportive systems – health, water and sanitation, education and social protection – to scale up nutrition results for all children.
  5. Collecting, analyzing and using good-quality data and evidence regularly to guide action and track progress.

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Download photos, broll and the full report here. For regional summary, click here. For complete data sets, click here

Media Contacts

Andrés Alfonso Ramírez Islas
UNICEF LACRO
Tel: +507 63365496
Alfonso Fernández Reca
Regional Communication Specialist
UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean
Tel: +507 301-7373
Tel: +507 6941-2277

About UNICEF

UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.

For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org/lac.

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