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5 ways that malnutrition is costing Latin America billions

Can you put a price on the cost of poor diets? The World Food Programme has, and it's a hefty bill
, Simone Gie

Obesity, from eating too much of the wrong foods, and undernutrition, from not getting enough of the right ones, are two sides of same coin. More and more, these two seemingly separate forms of malnutrition are being seen side by side in the same countries, communities and even families. It's known as the ‘double burden of malnutrition' and countries are paying a heavy economic toll.

A family participating in WFP's Resilience and Climate Change Programme enjoys a meal of chicken soup in their home in El Salvador. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

The Latin America and the Caribbean region has made significant progress in reducing undernutrition over the past 20 years, but at the same time there has also been an increase in overweight and obesity (overnutrition) and related chronic disease.

Now a ground-breaking study by the World Food Programme has put a price tag on the burden, showing how Latin American countries are paying for malnutrition directly through healthcare and schooling, and indirectly through lost productivity.

The study analysed data from Chile, Ecuador and Mexico, and estimated that the combined impact of the double burden of malnutrition represented a net loss of gross domestic product of 4.3 percent (equivalent to US$4.3 billion) a year in Ecuador and 2.3 percent (a whopping US$28.8 billion) in Mexico. In the case of Chile, where undernutrition has already been eradicated, this cost reaches 0.2 percent (US$500 million).

Here are the main reasons why.

1. Undernutrition costs the education system

Undernutrition affects a child's education in two ways. Children who don't get adequate nutrition in the first thousand days from conception to their second birthday have poorer cognitive development. Then when they reach school age, not having enough to eat during the day means they have trouble concentrating in class. Undernourished children are therefore more likely to have to repeat school years, at a cost to governments and families.

Photo: WFP / Alejandra León

2. Unfulfilled education potential leads to lost productivity

Children who suffer from undernutrition are more likely to have poorer cognitive development and lower educational levels than well-nourished ones, limiting their work potential throughout life. When they become part of the working-age population, their contribution may be inhibited as a result.

3. Premature death means lost productivity

Lost productivity through early death, as a result of undernutrition, was found to create a significant burden on countries' economies. Premature death from malnutrition means that people either stop being part of, or never even become part of, the working-age population.

Women in El Salvador participate in a soil conservation project as part of WFP's Resilience and Climate Change Programme. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

4. Missed work leads to lost productivity

Chronic illness related to overnutrition can lead to missed days of work for medical visits, prescribed rest or sick days. Studies on work absenteeism have found that overweight and obese workers are absent from work more days per year due to illness, regardless of occupation type.

5. Malnutrition has direct healthcare costs

Both undernutrition and overnutrition have associated healthcare costs. Children suffering from undernutrition have increased chances of getting sick, particularly with diarrhoea and respiratory infections. Overnutrition can lead to non-communicable diseases such as type II diabetes, hypertension and cancer. Although the health effects may be slow onset, they are long-lasting and can require years of medical attention.

A woman in El Salvador pays for her shopping at a local grocery store with money she received through WFP's Resilience and Climate Change Programme. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

According to the study, although undernutrition is declining, overnutrition is expected to become the largest social and economic burden in the region. The authors recommend that governments promote consumer education through clear policies and incentives to ensure reliable food labelling, physical activity programmes, and the support of community-based nutrition education programmes. They also encourage the food industry to work with governments to guarantee the production, availability and accessibility of healthier food products, and to play a positive and responsible role in educating consumers on healthy food choices.

The study was carried out by the World Food Programme and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), drawing on a methodology originally designed to measure the cost of child undernutrition and updating it to include the impact of overweight and obesity.

See the full report at