SEATTLE — Nutrition in Guatemala is poor and the chronic malnutrition rate is among the highest in the world.
Health officials say inter-generational diets high in fat and simple carbohydrates have created an anomaly where up to 65 percent of children are undernourished while 50 percent of adult women are overweight or obese.
“One of the myths about addressing hunger in Guatemala is that people need to eat more,” said Dr. Reynaldo Martorell, international nutrition expert at Emory University, in an article posted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). “The issue isn’t about eating more; it’s about eating better.”
The problem is especially prevalent in impoverished rural and indigenous communities in Guatemala where beans, corn, and coffee make up the bulk of food consumption. Healthier crops like squash, strawberries and carrots are grown solely for export. These are long-held dietary and agricultural traditions, which leaders have had difficulty changing.
The problem of malnutrition for children starts when their mothers are pregnant and in many cases themselves stunted, obese and anemic, a reflection of their own experience of malnutrition during childhood.
IDB reports that reduced stature “can limit intrauterine growth during pregnancy, and it is considered an obstetrical risk factor that can complicate delivery and lead to a low birth-weight baby.” Maternal obesity and anemia present additional risk factors to a fetus.
After birth, babies often do not receive proper nursing and complementary feeding practices, especially those from the lowest-income families. “Infections, particularly diarrhea caused by poor hygiene and contaminated drinking water, lead to poor appetite and reduced absorption of nutrients,” the article says. “Combined, these two factors—inadequate diet and infections—are the main causes of chronic childhood malnutrition.”
Malnourished children can develop lifelong cognitive impairments. In addition to being a national health emergency, chronic malnutrition contributes to cycles of poverty and keeps Guatemala from maximizing its economic potential. A UNICEF report estimates that malnutrition related productivity loss costs the country up to $8.4 million each day.
In response, the development community and the Thousand Days non-profit organization have initiated a multidimensional campaign to target nutrition in Guatemala during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life – from conception to the child’s second birthday. Improving nutrition during this period is critical to prevent stunting and other impairments later in life.
The campaign provides pregnant women with information and support to ensure that they are following a nutrient-rich diet and taking prenatal vitamins. During infancy, mothers are encouraged to practice breastfeeding and maintain proper hygiene. And as toddlers, children receive dietary supplements to manage gaps in caloric intake.
In 2014, the Guatemalan and Canadian governments and the World Food Programme launched a food supplement program designed to reach 17,000 children under the age of two in the country. The supplement, called Mi Comidita, is an easy to use powder consisting of milk, soybean oil and essential vitamins and mineral. It is being distributed by health centers across the country. The Canadian government has committed enough funding to continue the project through 2019.
Development partners are also engaging community leaders in Guatemala to make chronic malnutrition a priority of local governance. Much of this work involves fostering a shift in cultural attitudes about a woman’s role in family life and getting male family members to support using scarce financial resources on nutritious food during early childhood.
A report highlighted by USAID suggests that an additional $11.40 per month used by mothers for food can improve childhood nutrition as effectively as an additional $166 earned by fathers.
“Because selecting and cooking food are traditionally a woman’s responsibility, an active and more empowered role of women is essential to reduce chronic malnutrition,” said David Delgado, USAID Senior Food Security Adviser.
By empowering women to make healthy decisions during pregnancy and motherhood, leaders in Guatemala are hoping to break the cycle of malnutrition and poverty and to create sustainable health and economic progress.