11 Myths About Malnutrition in Latin America

There is often the misconception that hunger and malnutrition refer to the same condition. While the two often go hand-in-hand there are significant differences. With the assistance of The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) we are hoping to break this common misconception. Read on for 11 myth busting facts about malnutrition and examples of how WFP is tackling it in Latin America.


1. MYTH: Malnutrition is the same as hunger.

Three girls in front of WFP food

Fact: Not the same! It is a common misconception that malnutrition means the same as hunger. However, many people globally suffer from malnutrition, even if they eat enough to feel full. This is because their diet lacks nutrients. WFP addresses this problem by fortifying foods. For example, in Panama the main staple food is rice. The World Food Programme (WFP) provided technical support to the Government of Panama for the development of the fortification of rice.

2. MYTH: Malnutrition is all about being too thin.

Unseemingly malnourished children drinking out of mugs

Fact: It is actually not! While it’s true that many malnourished babies and children are severely underweight, it’s a common misconception that malnutrition only relates to being too thin. Children need nutritious food to grow and be healthy, but healthy food with vitamins and minerals is often more expensive than unhealthy food such as grains or carbohydrates. One way WFP addresses child malnutrition by delivering School Meals. A daily school meal provides a strong incentive to send children to school and allows the children to focus on their studies, rather than their stomachs.  In Honduras, school meals consist of beans, vegetables and rice.

3. MYTH: Nutrition starts when a child is born.

Nicaraguan woman holding her baby

Fact: Actually, good nutrition should begin before a child is born! Malnutrition’s most devastating impact is in the womb, when the foetus can fail to develop properly, and during the first years of a child’s life, when it can hamper physical and mental development. This means that the best time to tackle malnutrition is in the first 1,000 days, from conception to age 2. WFP in Nicaragua provides pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers with provisions of fortified food, training, and community education initiatives, all of which endeavour to increase the level of participation in preventive health programmes and to increase their understanding of nutrition.

4. MYTH: The consequences of malnutrition are only health-related.

Young girl eating food on the ground

Fact: Malnutrition not only has a severe effect on health, but also on a person’s quality of life. Can you believe that adults who were malnourished as children earn at least 20 percent less on average than those who weren’t? Furthermore, undernourished children are less likely to perform well in school, have a lower economic status in adulthood, and are more likely to grow into malnourished adults. WFP’s role in preventing stunting begins by ensuring adequate complementary feeding, promoting nutrition-sensitive activities, and strengthening the capacity of national governments to create policies to prevent stunting.

5. MYTH: Malnutrition only affects individuals.

Woman picking vegetables with baby on her back

Fact: Malnutrition’s far-reaching effects are often dangerously underestimated. It can have direct consequences for mortality, productivity and economic growth, and traps countries in a cycle of poverty. To prevent a higher malnutrition rate in countries after a disaster, where people are left with nothing, WFP delivers Specialized Nutritious Foods and other products. This year, WFP in Bolivia delivered High Energy Biscuits (HEBs) which are easy to distribute and improve levels of nutrition.

6. MYTH: Malnutrition is all about starving children in Africa.

Malnourished children of all ethnicities

Fact: Not close, we are often presented with images of starving children in Africa, and while it is true that many countries in Africa suffer the effects of malnutrition we cannot forget about the children in other parts of the world. According to WFP's World Hunger Map, in Haiti 44.5 percent of the population is undernourished.

7. MYTH: Malnutrition is not as serious as other diseases in the world.

Woman working in a field

Fact: Malnutrition is the number one risk to health worldwide! It is also associated with eleven percent of all disease in the world. Furthermore, 50 percent of all childhood deaths are attributed to malnutrition. Each year it kills 3.5 million children under five years old and impairs hundreds of thousands of growing minds. To break this cycle, WFP in Ecuador works in various ways such as School Meals, Food for Assets, Food Rations, Purchase for Progress (P4P), women empowerment, and nutrition education.

8. MYTH: Nutrition and HIV are not linked.

Woman and man standing in front of grass hut

Fact: As a matter of fact, they are! Good nutrition helps prolong the lives of those that suffer from HIV. People with HIV may experience lack of appetite, difficulties to ingest food, and a poor absorption of nutrients. These potential symptoms makes it all the more difficult for the human body to fight against the virus. At the start of 2010, WFP began a project in Bolivia with the main objective to support at least 650 people living with HIV by distributing a food basket per month. It included rice, vegetable oil, soy grains, and salt.

9. MYTH: It’s easy to get all the nutrients you need from food.

Two young girls holding WFP mugs

Fact: Yes it is possible, but unfortunately it is not always the case that people eat this way. Essential vitamins and minerals in the diet are vital to boost immunity and healthy development. If you ate only the most nutrient-rich foods and enjoyed a well-rounded diet you could get all the nutrients you need from food. In 2004, the World Food Programme in Peru started a pilot project to fight anaemia. More than 1,000 mothers in the participating community received nutritional coaching and an iron-rich cookbook with economic and easy-to-make recipes.

10. MYTH: Anemia cannot be reversed.

Woman smiling

Fact: Actually, most types of anaemia can be reversed! Anaemia is a global public health issue most often associated with iron deficiency. Anaemia can be reversed. In response to this public health issue, the Government of Cuba has launched a Micronutrient Powder initiative which is supported by the World Food Programme (WFP).

11. MYTH: Fortified Foods are GMOs

Small child eating a school meal

Fact: In reality they have nothing to do with GMOs. Fortified foods provide levels of energy, micronutrients, and macronutrients, necessary for growth and health in order to prevent or treat undernutrition. Since 1976, Colombia has delivered a Super Cereal called Bienestarina.

To learn more about WFP’s fight against hunger click here

To learn more about how to end global malnutrition in our lifetime visit GAIN’s website www.gainhealth.org