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International Health

December 27, 2019

Obesity Burden Increasing Rapidly Among Lower-Income Groups in Latin America and the Caribbean

Findings from a new study reveal the increasing and rapidly shifting obesity epidemic in Latin America and the Caribbean. Results show that lower socioeconomic groups are bearing the brunt of the rising obesity rates in this region, known for large income inequalities. The study, published in Lancet Global Health, was led by Safia Jiwani, a research associate in the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 


Researchers investigated inequalities in obesity in 13 Latin American and Caribbean countries and trends over the past two decades in five countries. The analysis included 479,809 adult men and women with body mass index (BMI) data from 23 national health surveys conducted between 1998 and 2017. Measures such as wealth, education and place of residence were used to group individuals into five socioeconomic levels. The obesity gap was defined as the difference in percentage points between the highest and lowest obesity prevalence estimates among the five socioeconomic levels.


The highest prevalence of obesity was observed among women in Mexico in 2016, and the lowest among women in Haiti in 2016. The findings point to three main patterns of the shifting obesity burden across socioeconomic status: the first characterized by a concentration of obesity among the low wealth and education groups (i.e. Argentina), the second characterized by a larger burden among the middle wealth and education groups (i.e. women in Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Bolivia), and the third pattern characterized by largest burden among the highest wealth and education groups (i.e. women in Haiti and Guatemala). Beyond wealth and education indices, urban residents consistently had a higher obesity burden compared to their rural counterparts, although obesity appears to be rising faster among rural populations.


The study provides up-to-date evidence on the increasing and rapidly shifting obesity epidemic across socioeconomic status in Latin America and the Caribbean. Jiwani warns that to contain this epidemic and its uneven spread, population-wide strategies are needed alongside programs and policies that focus preventive interventions by socioeconomic status and by gender, rather than a single approach. The findings show a clear need for “tailored, equity-focused policy responses to obesity burden in the region."


The shift of obesity burden by socioeconomic status between 1998 and 2017 in Latin America and the Caribbean: a cross sectional series study was written by Safia S Jiwani, Rodrigo M Carrillo-Larco, Akram Hernández-Vásquez, Tonatiuh Barrientos-Gutiérrez, Ana Basto-Abreu, Laura Gutierrez, Vilma Irazola, Ramfis Nieto-Martínez, Bruno P Nunes, Diana C Parra, and J Jaime Miranda