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Argentina – Fighting the Worst Child Obesity Rate in the Region

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 19 2012 (IPS) - Pediatricians and nutritionists stress that there is no single factor explaining why Argentina is the country in Latin America with the highest rate of obese and overweight children.

“In Argentina, between 2.5 and 3.0 percent of preschoolers were obese in the 1980s, compared to 10 percent today,” Dr. Esteban Carmuega, with the Centre of Studies on Child Nutrition (CESNI), told IPS. “We lead the statistics in the region.”

The average for South America is 6.8 percent, Carmuega said.

But he added that the rise in obesity is a regionwide problem.

Neighbouring Chile and Uruguay have rates only slightly lower than Argentina’s. “It’s difficult to come up with an answer. I believe that there is a multiplicity of factors here, rather than just one killer,” he said.

Dr. Miriam Tonietti, secretary of the nutrition committee of the Argentine Society of Pediatrics, concurred. In a conversation with IPS, she pointed to the serious risks associated with obesity in children.

“We are seeing that young children are also suffering from serious diseases related to obesity, such as hypertension, changes in the levels of blood lipids, and altered glucose metabolism, which precedes diabetes,” she noted.

“We didn’t see these symptoms at such a young age in the past,” said Tonietti, a paediatrician at the Dr. Ricardo Gutiérrez Children’s Hospital in Buenos Aires. “The prognosis is complicated, and the life expectancy of these children is very poor.”

The worst complications, she said, are type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But there are a number of other problems associated with excess weight in childhood, including traumatological and psychological issues, she added.

Like Carmuega, Tonietti does not attribute obesity to one single cause. “Obesity is a multifactorial phenomenon, conditioned by genetics,” she explained.

She said, however, that what stands out in Latin America is the “nutritional transition.” As part of that transition, she mentioned the process of rural-urban migration by people seeking better employment opportunities.

“People are uprooted, they lose their culture and their diet, and foods rich in fats and sugar become prevalent,” she summed up.

The experts said that foods rich in nutrients are more expensive, which also increases the risk of obesity among the poor. And they also point out that obesity is not the opposite of malnutrition, but part of the same problem.

“For a long time, we were concerned about accelerating the growth rates of children, and we gave them more food as soon as we noticed they were going down in weight. What we are seeing now can also be a consequence of that,” said Carmuega.

The sources pointed out that acute child malnutrition rates are declining overall in the region, with the phenomenon restricted to pockets of poverty. But the problem of poor nutrition associated with obesity is growing, and “poses greater risks,” Tonietti said.

She said that in the public hospital where she works, she often sees that families “do not even notice” that their child is overweight, as if it were just a natural part of life.

“One example: two obese parents come in with a child who is heavily overweight, and they say they are there because they were ‘sent by the traumatologist’. And when they are asked if there is a family history of obesity, they say no.”

Tonietti said this indicates that the capacity to identify the problem is being lost, which creates delays in coming up with solutions.

The probability that an overweight preschooler will become an overweight adult is 25 percent. In the case of schoolchildren, the likelihood rises to 50 percent, and for adolescents, the risk climbs to 80 percent, experts say.

At a conference on childhood obesity held this month in Buenos Aires,
Carmuega called his colleagues’ attention to the need for early intervention.

At the conference, organised by CESNI and the Argentine Society of Obesity and Eating Disorders, Carmuega concluded that “the only way to treat this problem is by trying to prevent it from happening.”

He recommended working to prevent women of child-bearing age from becoming overweight, and helping them to control their diet during pregnancy. He also said breastfeeding is “perhaps the only vaccine” that protects children against obesity.

“We have to try to start earlier, working with women, through a strong intervention during the critical first 1,000 days of growth of the child,” he said.

Carmuega said Argentina had made “a major stride forward” when the centre-left government of Cristina Fernández adopted the universal child benefit, a cash transfer that covers the children – up to the age of 18 – of unemployed parents and informal sector workers, rural workers and domestics with incomes below the minimum monthly wage.

But he also said it was necessary to “adapt all health policies” to the obesity seen in doctors’ offices, in order to urge families, doctors and schools to create “healthier environments” for children to grow up in.

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