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Food Insecurity and Malnutrition in Guatemala

I recently came across an article online titled “Need to lose a few extra pounds? Visit a developing country and try the poverty diet”. The premise of the article was an American woman staying in a Guatemalan homestay for a couple weeks and losing 7 pounds. The title was offensive and struck me as rather ignorant so I read on, hoping that it was just an attention grabber. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. She spoke briefly about food insecurity in Guatemala, citing some statistics that I have heard as well, such as the fact that 50% of Guatemalan children are chronically malnourished, but could not seem to remove her western ideas about the benefits of weight loss from the discussion.

Many people, including the author, believe Guatemala to be a poor country, but that actually isn’t true. Guatemala has the highest GDP of any Central American country, even higher than Costa Rica, a country that many people think of when they think of a well off Central American country. This wealth in Guatemala comes mainly from coffee, banana, and sugar exports; however, due to long standing corruption very little of this money makes its way back to the majority of the population. Guatemala has the highest wealth disparity in all of Central America, and even the world, with the top 20% of people controlling more than half of the country’s money. This leads to 75% of the country living below the poverty line, which leads to the fact that 1 in 2 Guatemalan children are chronically malnourished. This undernourishment jumps to 80% of children in rural, heavily indigenous areas. Most of these people eat only tortillas with salt or salsa all week long then get beans on Sunday for the large meal of the week. Knowing this makes me sadly understand why just last week four children in the outlying regions of Xela died of malnutrition. The human body cannot survive on tortillas alone.

However, poverty isn’t the only explanation for the poor food situation here, lack of nutritional education and cultural food habits are also to blame. Take my host family for example, they aren’t extremely well off, but by Guatemalan standards they are doing well. They all have cell phones, two Galaxy smartphones, and the children go to private school, yet we still eat a diet almost entirely consistent of carbohydrates. Vegetables are cheap here, on the walk from school to home I pass women selling beautiful carrots, zucchini, broccoli, and more for less than a quetzal each (about 12 cents in USD). During class I often have the food conversation with my teachers and it has shocked me to hear my very well educated teachers say that sugars are fine for your health. Sometimes it feels like Guatemala’s food education is stuck in the US 1980-90’s trap of the low fat/high sugar fad.

The food situation is extremely complicated and very sad here. I struggle with trying to remain culturally sensitive while advocating for my own health and my own body. What I’ve realized is that I have to push for vegetables and protein at meals in my host family, because while they can afford them and we are paying them for them, they simply wouldn’t buy them without a push. I’m trying to understand more about where these ideas around food come from, yet balance that with trying to see that I have never known/hopefully will never know the hunger that the majority of Guatemalans grow up accustomed to. That takes me back around to my original disgust at the “poverty diet” article.

First, I disagree with her conclusion that the diet was good for her. Losing 7 pounds in a couple weeks is not healthy, it is too fast and for someone who is staying long term it presents a serious problem to be dealt with. Second, I disagree with the assumptions that this diet is healthy simply because it is more “primitive”, an assumption that relies far too heavily on unilinear assumptions of “civilized” vs “primitive”. (Side note: this is a very anthropological argument that I’m too tired to go into fully right now so if you want to know more Google Lewis Henry Morgan for a run down on evolutionist ideas and their misapplication.) Lastly, her treatment of the very serious problem of malnutrition in Guatemala as a way to lose weight offended me more than I can really say. We in the United States of a certain economic background are extremely privileged to be able to have food when we are hungry and to choose what foods we want to satisfy that hunger with. We need to be aware that this privilege is far from universal and that a large part of the world lives on what would seem to us like a starvation diet, and very nearly is.

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