Obesity affects almost half the population in Latin America and the Caribbean

Obesity and overweight are on the rise throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and are particularly prevalent among women and children, according to a new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

The Panorama of Food and Nutrition Security in Latin America and the Caribbean, noted that close to 360 million people – around 58 percent of the inhabitants of the region – are overweight with the highest rates observed in the Bahamas (69 percent), Mexico (64 percent) and Chile (63 percent).

With the exception of Haiti (38.5 percent), Paraguay (48.5 percent) and Nicaragua (49.4 percent), overweight affects more than half the population of all countries in the region.

The report also noted obesity affects 140 million people – 23 percent of the region’s population – and that the highest rates are to be found in the Caribbean countries of Barbados (36 percent) Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda all at around 31 percent.

The increase in obesity has disproportionately impacted women: in more than 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, the rate of female obesity is 10 percentage points higher than that of men.

According to FAO’s a.i. Regional Representative Eve Crowley, “The alarming rates of overweight and obesity in Latin America and the Caribbean should act as a wake up call to governments in the region to introduce policies that address all forms of hunger and malnutrition by linking food security, sustainability, agriculture, nutrition and health.”

PAHO’s Director Carissa F. Etienne explained that: “the region faces a double burden of malnutrition. This needs to be tackled through balanced diets that include fresh, healthy, nutritious and sustainably produced food, as well as addressing the main social factors that determine malnutrition, such as lack of access to healthy food, water and sanitation, education and health services, and social protection programs, among others.”

The FAO/PAHO Panorama report points out that one of the main factors contributing to the rise of obesity and overweight has been the change in dietary patterns. Economic growth, increased urbanization, higher average incomes and the integration of the region into international markets have reduced the consumption of traditional preparations and increased consumption of ultra-processed products, a problem that has had greater impact on areas and countries that are net food importers.

To address this situation, FAO and PAHO call for the promotion of healthy and sustainable food systems that link agriculture, food, nutrition and health. To this end, countries should promote the sustainable production of fresh, safe and nutritious foods, ensuring their supply, diversity and access, especially for the most vulnerable sectors. This should be complemented with nutrition education and consumer warnings about the nutritional composition of foods high in sugar, fat and salt.

The report shows that in Latin America and the Caribbean, around 4 million children – just over 7 percent – of children under the age of 5 are overweight. Since 1990, the largest increases in overweight among children – in terms of numbers – were seen in Mesoamerica and in terms of prevalence in the Caribbean where the rate increased from around 4 percent to almost 7.