The Hungry Truth: Malnutrition in Latin America

Photo by Robin Lattimer

There is more to malnutrition than just calories and food. Malnutrition can be the result of not only inadequate, but also excessive intake of the vitamins, minerals and nutrients required to maintain healthy tissue and organ function. Unfortunately, Latin American countries are currently facing both sides of this issue, and as a result, they are increasingly at risk of both communicable and non-communicable diseases, including coronary heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. The problem is a reflection of the socioeconomic situation in Latin America, and it is affected by many factors, the most basic of which begin at home.

Despite Latin America’s steps toward becoming a “developed” region, 31.4% of the population still lives in poverty, including 80% of rural Haitians. Modernization during the 1980s resulted in a large gap between the rich and poor, creating disparities between household assets, including running water, covered floors, refrigeration and sanitation. It separated those who can afford expensive, high-processed foods from those who maintain traditional diets of cereals, vegetables, roots and grains (Bermudez, O., Cadernos de saude pública). Nevertheless, both populations are susceptible to malnutrition.

The status of a household is not the only factor that contributes to malnutrition, however. Location also plays a critical role. There are 400 indigenous groups living in Latin America, a vast majority of which is located in rural areas. These groups depend on agriculture, which in turn depends on temperature, rainfall and other environmental factors that vary from area to area. Due to crop variation, nutrient deficiencies are more prominent in some places due to lower levels of vitamins and amino acids in local crops. For example, in rural areas of Colombia, there is a higher risk of iron deficiency because the primary crops are beans, rice, corn and sweet potatoes, all of which lack this essential mineral.

Location also affects access to health services. People who live in urban centers have better access to health services, including hospitals, intervention programs and screenings meant to prevent nutrition-related diseases, than those living in rural parts. They also have more access to education programs, including maternal education intended to remedy poor breastfeeding practices, which cause an estimated 52,000 infant deaths a year in Latin America and the Caribbean. But what can you do to remedy location without convincing everyone to move to a city?

One way to address the problem of location is to change the land itself, in a process known as crop biofortification. Crop biofortification is a method of soil management that increases the amount of nutrients available for absorption by plants. Through this process, the nutritional value of plants may be improved by raising levels of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. This is especially beneficial in countries like Colombia, Nicaragua and Bolivia, where dependence on certain crops increases the risk of deficiencies.

Another way to overcome location is to bring in outside help. The organization Shoulder to Shoulder, for example, has been battling malnutrition in rural Honduras, where the 2006 Honduras Demographic and Health Survey reports that one in four children under the age of five are chronically undernourished. Since 1990, Shoulder to Shoulder has distributed water filters designed by Potters for Peace to over 1100 families. These five-gallon buckets have a silver-coated ceramic insert that kills bacteria and allows families to produce up to three liters of clean drinking water per hour. Shoulder to Shoulder also runs two 24-hour medical centers, where it provides care for acute and chronic illnesses and performs minor surgeries. Though it has in-patient facilities, its staff also visits patients in their homes, which are often hours away from city hospitals.

Although there are currently many efforts to improve the situation, there are still challenges that lie ahead. Economic barriers to healthcare must be lowered; cost-effective interventions must be adopted; primary and preventative care must be strengthened. In order to do all of this, however, the United States must do what it can to increase the national public health budget for research. By increasing awareness of these issues and efforts to improve them, we may better understand and address the malnutrition crisis of the developing world.