With reference to international parameters, the nutritional status of Panamanian children less than 5 years of age may be placed in the range defined as acceptable, with 8% underweight, 18% stunting and 1% of wasting in the 1997 national survey. Indigenous people inhabit the areas most affected by chronic and acute malnutrition and are the poorest and least densely populated within the provinces of Bocas del Toro, Colón, Chiriquí and Veraguas.
With respect to the adult nutritional status, data obtained from the health centres indicate that 6.7% suffered from chronic energy deficiency and about 54.3% were overweight, of whom 20.2% were obese. An upward trend towards obesity can be observed in many Latin American countries undergoing rapid urbanisation.
The principal micronutrient deficiencies concern iron and iodine. The prevalence of goitre among school children increased markedly between 1975 and 1990, particularly in the Azuero region where endemic prevalence reached 23.2%. Iron-deficiency anaemia affects urban as well as rural areas, and mainly infants between 12 and 23 months. Vitamin A deficiency does not constitute a public health problem at the national level; it is localised in the indigenous areas of the provinces of Bocas del Toro, Chiriquí and Veraguas.
The 1992 national food consumption survey shows that the average per caput energy intake is the same in rural and urban areas, but it tends to be higher in the metropolitan area. Intake of protein (from meat and dairy products) and fat is higher in the urban/metropolitan areas (fat up to 30% of total energy). According to food availability data, there is a tendency towards increased consumption of vegetable oils and sugar.
In Panama, 37% of population live in poverty, half of which is extreme poverty. Poverty is unevenly distributed, the indigenous population groups being the poorest.