By Vivian Sequera
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelans reported losing on average 11 kilograms (24 lbs) in body weight last year and almost 90 percent now live in poverty, according to a new university study on the impact of a devastating economic crisis and food shortages.
The annual survey, published on Wednesday by three universities, is one of the most closely-followed assessments of Venezuelans' well being amid a government information vacuum and shows a steady rise in poverty and hunger in recent years.
Over 60 percent of Venezuelans surveyed said that during the previous three months they had woken up hungry because they did not have enough money to buy food. About a quarter of the population was eating two or less meals a day, the study showed.
Last year, the three universities found that Venezuelans said they had lost an average of 8 kilograms during 2016. This time, the study's dozen investigators surveyed 6,168 Venezuelans between the ages of 20 and 65 across the country of 30 million people.
After winning the presidency in 1999, leftist President Hugo Chavez was proud of improving Venezuela's social indicators due to oil-fueled welfare policies. But his successor President Nicolas Maduro's rule since 2013 has coincided with a deep recession, due to failed state-led economic policies and the plunge in global oil prices.
Wednesday's study flagged Venezuelans' deteriorating diets, which are deficient in vitamins and protein, as currency controls restrict food imports, hyperinflation eats into salaries, and people line up for hours to buy basics like flour.
"Income is being pulverized," Maria Ponce, one of the study's investigators, told a news conference at the Andres Bello Catholic University on Caracas's outskirts.
"This disparity between the rise in prices and the population's salaries is so generalized that there is practically not a single Venezuelan who is not poor," she said.
The study calculated the poverty rate from 13 different indicators such as income and access to services. If the average of these indicators was above 25 percent, investigators defined a person as poor.
Prices in Venezuela rose 4,068 percent in the 12 months to the end of January, according to estimates by the country's opposition-led National Assembly, broadly in line with independent economists' figures.
The study showed that 87 percent of people in Venezuela, one of Latin America's wealthiest nations back in the 1970s, were living in poverty last year, rising from 82 percent in 2016 and 48 percent in 2014.
The Venezuelan government has not released data on poverty since the first half of 2015 when the national statistics institute reported a poverty rate of 33 percent.
The government did not respond to a request for comments on the study, but its supporters often accuse academics of exaggerating data and being in league with the opposition.
Maduro blames the country's problems on an economic war waged by the opposition and business leaders, with help from Washington.
(Additonal reporting and writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Alistair Bell)