LAC faces “double burden” over malnutrition and obesity, UN agencies warn

26 Apr 17

The Mexican economy alone could lose almost $30bn as a result of the “double burden” of obesity and undernutrition, with billions more at risk in other nations across the region.


A report published yesterday by two United Nations agencies said malnutrition – compromising both ends of the dietary spectrum – drives higher sickness and mortality rates and hampers educational outcomes and productivity.

This results in annual GDP losses in the billions for countries across the region, the study, from the World Food Programme and the UN Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), said.

While LAC governments successfully halved the percentage of people in the region affected by hunger between 1990 and 2016, millions still suffer from undernutrition.

Overweight and obesity are now expected to eclipse undernutrition, becoming the region’s biggest social and economic burden. Countries like Argentina and Mexico already surpass or are on par with rates of overnutrition in richer countries, while the latter has among the highest rates for diabetes in the world.

The WFP described the consequences of this as “frightening”. Between 2014 and 2078, it estimates overnutrition will cost Mexico an average of $13bn per year, with another $3bn and $1bn at stake in Ecuador and Chile respectively.

The region’s poorest will be the most affected, the report noted. Miguel Barreto, WFP regional director, described a “worrying trend” among vulnerable families, which often have both undernourished and overweight members at the same time.  

“Both represent a serious burden for the health of those families that eventually translates into losses in productivity, and pressure on the health and education systems in the country where they live.”

While undernutrition undermines physical growth and brain development, limiting a child’s opportunities later in life, while being overweight or obese can lead to diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.

The report estimated that the costs of these run into the billions. In Mexico, costs could stand at $28.8bn (4.3% of GDP) and Ecuador and Chile, the report estimated losses worth $4.3bn (2.3% of GDP) and $500m (0.2%).

Alicia Bárcena, executive secretary of ECLAC, stressed that, with numerous countries in the region already navigating difficult economic headwinds, it is “imperative” countries make “every effort to move towards a new paradigm in terms of production and consumption”.

“The double burden of malnutrition increasingly affects the poor and vulnerable population, thus becoming another cause for the current inequality in our region,” she added.

The report called on governments to promote consumer education through clear policies and incentives, ensure reliable food labelling and offer physical activity programmes.

It also urged the food industry to work with the government to make healthier products available. 

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