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Carleton College

Publication Date

Fall 2013

Program Name

Chile: Public Health, Traditional Medicine, and Community Empowerment


Research Question: How do the Mapuche people interpret childhood obesity, and how do they use this interpretation to treat and prevent this disease?

Objective: To describe the Mapuche concept of childhood obesity used by families and community leaders in Makewe, Chile, and how this concept is used to treat and prevent this disease.

Background: Childhood obesity is a growing problem throughout much of the world, including Chile, with grave effects on physical and mental health. There are a plethora of causes of this disease, from individuals with an imbalance in calorie expenditure, to national and international policies in economy and health. The Mapuche are an indigenous population concentrated mainly in southern Chile, with a worldview closely linked to the balance and harmony of nature. Obesity is an example of a wingka, or outside, disease in the Mapuche concept of health, but its prevalence is growing with the influence of Western culture.

Methodology: This was a descriptive study that used 6 semi-structured interviews with staff members at the Consultroio Makewe, individuals who work in Mapuche health, and a representative from the SEREMI de Salud in Temuco, and 15 questionnaires from caretakers (predominantly mothers) of children between the ages of 2 and 9 in the Consultorio waiting room. Questions covered perceptions of causes, effects, treatments, and prevention of childhood obesity, and responses were analyzed by question, role in the community, and theme.

Results: Many people talked about the influence of Western food and lifestyles in their interviews and questionnaires. Education and advice as forms of prevention were also mentioned by several participants who had given or received education on childhood obesity. There are some programs at the regional level that address childhood obesity in the Mapuche community that also integrate elements of cultural identity.

Conclusions: In daily life, families and individuals who work in the Mapuche health system use a very westernized concept of childhood obesity. However, in the background is an understanding of the influence that the Western world has had on health. For some, this understanding extends to how the Western world has affected loss of Mapuche culture, and how this in turn has affected the health of the community. It is recommended that the government accept more responsibility in the situation of Mapuche health, being more open and communicative, as well as providing more equal access to the tools necessary to fight childhood obesity.


Community Health and Preventive Medicine | Health Services Research | Maternal and Child Health | Public Health | Public Health Education and Promotion

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