July-August 2024

Good and bad news in the nutrition of Maya children from Yucatan, Mexico

Human ecology allows the study of the impact of economic and sociocultural changes in populations on children’s health, including their physical growth and nutritional status. The integration of rural communities in low- and middle-income countries into globalizing market economies tends to show both positive and negative effects on the health and well-being of individuals. In countries such as Mexico, where there are marked socioeconomic disparities, these effects tend to be of greater concern in indigenous communities due to their conditions of high material poverty, marginalization and limited possibilities for human development.

Our research team has studied the nutritional ecology of Maya populations in the Yucatan Peninsula over the last four decades. The Maya is the largest Indigenous ethnic group in the America continent and the state of Yucatan in Mexico is home to more than 550,000 Maya speakers residing in rural communities and cities. Due to their historically poor conditions, Maya children have shown, in numerous studies, very high rates of stunting, i.e., low height-for-age. This condition is the result of a combination of chronic malnutrition due to a diet deficient in nutrients essential for growth, the presence of frequent infectious diseases, and an adverse social-economic-political-emotional environment. More recently we have documented the coexistence of chronic undernutrition and overweight at the community level, a situation known in epidemiological jargon as «double nutritional burden» (or «nutritional dual burden»).

Few investigations have studied changes in anthropometric characteristics and nutritional status of Maya children in the same community, in other words we have few studies on secular changes in growth and nutrition of Yucatecan Maya children. We recently ended a study conducted in two Maya communities located in eastern Yucatan in which we analyzed changes in anthropometric characteristics and nutritional status of children by comparing data collected during the 1980s and 1990s with data obtained during the last fieldwork season in 2022 and 2023. Both communities began a process of integration into the economic and sociocultural dynamics of tourism during the 1970s. This process has implied a gradual abandonment of the milpa, the traditional Mesoamerican agricultural system, and the incorporation of the population into the salaried labor market in the main tourist centers of the region including Cancun and the Riviera Maya, Chichen Itza and Valladolid. In these sites, the Maya participate in the tourism economy as low-cost labor in construction and maintenance work and as employees in beach, ecotourism and archaeo-tourism sites. These processes have profoundly transformed the nutritional ecology of the communities, making them more dependent on industrialized products to cover their food needs and modifying their consumption ideals.

The results of the study tell us that there is good and bad news for the health of children in these communities. The good news is that prevalence of stunting has decreased by 70% to 75% in children between the ages of 6 and 12 from 1980 to date. Increases in average height are larger for girls. What are the bad news? The data show an accelerating increase in the percentage of excess body weight (overweight and obese) in boys and girls. In the 1980s, only 5%-7% of children were classified as overweight and obese, by the late 1990s the percentages increased to 10%-12% and during 2022-2023 the rates reached 30%-50%. These results indicate a dramatic increase in the last two decades. Our results also show that the decrease in stunting and the increase in overweight and obesity are greater in the community that has been incorporated more rapidly into the dynamics of tourism.

Mexico has looked to tourism as an avenue for economic development and the Yucatan Peninsula has become a favorite destination for many national and international tourists. The participation of Maya communities in the dynamics of tourism has had both positive and negative consequences on the health of children in these communities. It is clear that health strategies are needed to mitigate the dark consequences of tourism as a life strategy in the Maya communities of Yucatan.


Hugo Azcorra is a researcher at the Silvio Zavala Research Center of the Universidad Modelo (Centro de Investigación Silvio Zavala de la Universidad Modelo de Mérida) in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. He belongs to the National System of Researchers of the National Council of Humanities, Science and Technology (Conahcyt) of Mexico. His main research interests are physical growth, nutritional ecology, and pregnancy and reproductive ecology.


Further reading

Bogin, B. 2021. Social-Economic-Political-Emotional (SEPE) Factors Regulate Human Growth. Human Biology and Public Health 1, 1–20.

Bogin B, Azcorra H, Wilson H, Vázquez-Vázquez A, Avila M L, Castillo-Burguete M T, Varela-Silva I, Dickinson F. 2014. Globalization and children’s diets: The case of Maya of Mexico and Central America. Anthropological Review, 77:11-32.

Azcorra H, Varela-Silva M I, Rodríguez L, Bogin B, Dickinson F. 2013. Nutritional status of Maya children, their mothers, and their grandmothers residing in the city of Merida, Mexico: revisiting the leg-length hypothesis.