Understanding Malnutrition in Guatemala

Shawn and Natalie Sagert served with FH Canada in Guatemala.  Shawn is using his skills and knowledge as a health professional to help some of the poorest communities improve their standards of living. Here is an update on their experience of walking alongside Guatemalan communities.


Guatemala is home to a good number of the 850 million modern-day hungry people around the world. This country has, by far, the worst malnutrition rate in Latin America. The World Bank reports that in Guatemala, 49% of children under five years old are chronically malnourished. In this particularly poor region where we live, that rate is even higher. We have yet to get used to how small most of the kids are here. Growth measurements can be used to indicate children’s nutritional status, so we now monitor the height and weight of the children in the communities where Food for the Hungry is working. The vast majority of young kids are below the 3rd percentile on the growth curves.

More than just stunted growth, we are facing a crisis that compromises all health. According to the World Health Organization, more than half of child mortality is directly or indirectly related to undernourishment. Those that survive never reach the physical and intellectual potential God intended for them. The damage done in the first two years of life is irreversible. A UNICEF representative in Guatemala, Manuel Manrique, says the effects of malnutrition on child development are like "a life sentence" because it "compromises their health, their ability to learn and their growth."

The obvious solution seems to be to make more food available to these children, right? Food aid, feeding programs, improved distribution of food, etc. Although these things definitely have their place, we doubt simple access to more food would be all that helpful in this context. What we’ve observed in these past couple years is that villagers here have plenty of food available to them. There are exceptions, of course, but most families eat their fill three times a day.

Since this is a rural area, the people own land on which they can grow their own crops, and from what we see in the local markets, the land can produce what is needed for a balanced diet. So what’s the matter then? Well, here are at least some of the barriers to adequate nutrition that I’ve observed from visiting homes in the communities.

Candy consumption is astronomical in this country. It’s cheap and readily available in every little store and in large quantities. People that come to visit often comment on how kids seem to have a sucker or some other sweet permanently attached to their mouths. Among the ill-effects of sugar is a suppressed appetite for other foods with nutritional value.

Dental Hygiene
All that candy coupled with very poor teeth-brushing habits makes for some of the most extraordinary tooth decay I’ve ever seen. Baby teeth often rot out before they fall out naturally. Dental pain is a fact of life for many youngsters which is bound to affect how much and what kinds of food they eat.

Water purification
Most families have running water just outside their houses but none of it is safe to drink. Boiling it is the typical method of purification but that takes a lot of wood-burning energy and requires extended time at this altitude. It’s not practiced consistently and I witness plenty of kids drinking straight out of the tap. People here live with chronic parasites which vie for much needed nutrients. Gastro-intestinal infections also cause diarrhea and loss of appetite. The weight lost during prolonged periods of sickness if often never regained.

Food sanitization
Refrigeration is a luxury very few Guatemalans enjoy. Without it, it’s difficult to keep food safe and free of contamination. Unsanitary food preparation is another cause of sickness and disease, again, leading to malnourishment.

Personal hygiene
Hand washing is the number one recommended practice for infectious disease prevention. Unfortunately I see precious little of it happening out in the communities. Poor hygiene leads to sickness which leads to malnutrition.

Cooking is done over wood fires, many times right on the floor of the homes with no chimneys and poor ventilation. Kids grow up in smoke-filled houses. Not only do they inhale high levels of carbon monoxide and other brain damaging toxins, but they have chronic respiratory infections. Any infection increases the demand for calories but suppresses appetite at the same time.

Social eating habits
Family mealtimes do not seem to be much of a custom here. Toddlers and preschoolers are often left to eat unsupervised. As a parent I can tell you that kids just don’t eat properly when they wander about or are left on their own.

Weaning practices
Something positive to note is that breastfeeding is widely accepted and practiced in this culture. With exclusive breastfeeding, babies actually do quite well for the first few months of life. It’s at the point of weaning when they begin to falter.
Complementary foods are not introduced properly. I’ve seen babies given bottles with coffee saturated with sugar.

Lack of education
The education level of adults is extremely low in this region. Even though nutritious food may be available and affordable, parents do not necessarily know what it means to have a balanced diet, nor understand its importance for their children.

Cultural beliefs
The staple food of indigenous Guatemalans is maize. To say corn is important does not express what it really means to the Maya people. There are countless words to describe it in their language, it is eaten at every meal without exception, and according to their folklore, it is even the material from which human beings were formed. Tortillas and other food made from maize is the only true food in the minds of the Maya. Everything else is more like condiments to go along with it. For many villagers, the only thing they ever plant on their land is maize and beans.

As you can see, we are learning there’s no one simple solution in the fight against malnutrition. To be sustainable, the help we offer needs to be as holistic and comprehensive as the problem. In short, it requires showing and living out a different worldview. Only as we line ourselves up with the truth about ourselves and the world we live in as God has ordered it will effective development happen.

- Shawn & Natalie Sagert

To learn more about Shawn and Natalie and their commitment to Guatemala, click here



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Food for the Hungry: Understanding Malnutrition in Guatemala
Understanding Malnutrition in Guatemala
Food for the Hungry
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