July-September 2021

Malnutrition and structural poverty in schoolchildren from Puerto Madryn (Chubut, Argentina)

The study of physical growth of boys and girls is considered a sensitive indicator of the quality of the environment in which they live. One of the tools used to estimate it is anthropometry, which can be complemented with other measures of living standards, thus expanding the power of historical analysis.

For several decades the Biological Anthropology team of the Instituto de Diversidad y Evolución Austral (Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, Argentina, IDEAus, Argentina) and of the Laboratorio de Investigaciones en Ontogenia y Adaptación (Facultad de Ciencias Naturales and Museo Universidad Nacional de la Plata, LINOA, Agrentina) has been developing collaborative research in the child and youth population of Puerto Madryn, located northeast of Chubut province, being one of the most important urban conglomerates in Argentine Patagonia. Since its foundation in 1865 by Welsh immigrants, it was distinguished by its cosmopolitan character due to the coexistence of native settlers and internal migrants (from other Argentine provinces including Mendoza, Río Negro and Buenos Aires) and external (mainly from Bolivia and Chile). In the mid-twentieth century, the arrival of migrants in response to industrialization processes contributed to the number of inhabitants increasing thirteen times in forty years, making it one of the cities with the highest relative urban and demographic growth in Argentina in the 1970s. In recent decades, population growth influenced the city expansion and the lack of government housing policies caused the emergence of problematics like access to land and housing.

Given the above, an investigation was carried out whose objective was to estimate the nutritional status of two cohorts of schoolchildren living in neighbourhoods with different percentages of structural poverty in Puerto Madryn, after a decade. With this aim, the body weight and height of schoolchildren of both sexes, aged between 6 and 11 years, were measured between 2001/2006 and 2014/2016. Then, the nutritional status was determined, and the structural poverty of the neighbourhoods in which the boys and girls resided during the studied time period was estimated by means of the percentages of Unsatisfied Basic Needs (UBN) obtained from census sources corresponding to the years 2001 and 2010,

The results indicated a tendency to decreased stunting in schoolchildren during the period. This is probably related to the development of PROMEBA, a state plan aimed at consolidating informal settlements through access works to public services and improvements in housing and urban environments. It was observed that only one of the studied neighbourhoods registered variation in the UBN during the period. This was verified in the northwest of the city, where structural poverty increased. Despite this, stunting in schoolchildren did not increase in the period considered, possibly due to the existence of social networks that contributed to the containment and settlement of migrant families in the neighbourhood.

Regarding obesity, it increased in all neighbourhoods during the decade. This situation could be related to the proposal about the existence of two types of fat boys and girls, according to Patricia Aguirre: those of affluence, the result of the greater consumption of snacks, sodas and a high sedentarism; and those of poverty, who, in addition to being exposed to health problems associated with obesity, could present hidden malnutrition, caused by a monotonous diet, based on carbohydrates and lacking in proteins and micronutrients. In this regard, it should be noticed that the foods accessed by low-income families do not necessarily correspond to their wishes or nutritional recommendations.

The work achieved identified that over a decade, the level of structural poverty was maintained in a large part of the neighbourhoods of Puerto Madryn, while the nutritional status of resident schoolchildren showed variation. Thus, it was observed that while stunting was maintained or decreased, obesity increased and was distributed in all neighbourhoods. The holistic approach, characteristic of Biological Anthropology, allowed analysis of the nutritional status and structural poverty together with the variations in the context of residence of the child population, providing information for the identification of valuable vulnerable groups for the design of public health policies.


Bárbara Navazo is a postdoctoral fellow and Evelia Edith Oyhenart is a CONICET researcher at LINOA, and Silvia Lucrecia Dahinten is an associate researcher at IDEAus-CONICET. The three authors are PhDs in Natural Sciences from the National University of La Plata (Argentina). About their research in Puerto Madryn, you can read by the authors of this Piece: Navazo B, Dahinten SL, and Oyhenart EE, Malnutrición y pobreza estructural. Comparación de dos cohortes de escolares de Puerto Madryn, Argentina. Journal of Public Health, 2018, 20 (1): 60-66.

The research presented in this Piece was financed by the CONICET, ANPCYT, UNSJB and UNLP organisations.