Nutritionists have raised a red alert on Kenyan’s love for processed foods and beverages saying this could be the cause of the surge in lifestyle health challenges—obesity and diet-related Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs).
They say such foods —aesthetically appealing especially to the elite as they may be— lack critical nutrients that not only help the body build immunity to infectious illnesses but also reduce the risk of NCDs such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers.
The diet experts want policies put in place to ensure food processors and manufacturers reformulate additives and label food products more appropriately.
“Obesity and diet-related NCDs are largely the result of lifestyles characterised by limited physical activity and the consumption of unhealthy diets consisting of highly processed foods that are rich in calories, sugars, fats, salt and additives, but low in essential nutrients,” said WHO regional Office for Africa nutritionist adviser Adelheid Onyango.
She said nutritional status, a critical component of health and wellbeing, must be recognised as a necessary building block towards achieving Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.
However, improving nutrition sustainably requires consideration on how to produce, deliver and ensure access to healthy diets and essential nutrients, she added.
“Tackling all forms of malnutrition for the achievement of UHC and the health-related SDGs requires remedial actions from multiple sectors and on many fronts,” she said.
These actions, she explained, include policies and community action to control the marketing and consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages (including breast milk substitutes).
Others include setting nutrition standards and dietary goals, nutrition labeling of processed foods, policies to promote consumption of healthy foods through taxation and subsidies and initiatives to promote consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.
The nutritionists are also calling for social marketing campaigns and multi-component community-based interventions to encourage physical activities.
“When micronutrient deficiencies are taken into account, Africa is in fact experiencing a triple burden of malnutrition,” said Nutrition International deputy regional director Abdulaziz Adish.
“Micronutrient deficiencies, which often pass unnoticed, are responsible for reduced bodily resilience and resistance to infections. They compromise early child development,” he added.
Poverty, hunger and disease are the main drivers of malnutrition in Africa and are linked to poor living conditions, lack of education, insecure livelihoods, and lack of access to basic services, including health care and healthy, safe, nutritious foods.
“The burden of under nutrition still persists across the African region, and today its impacts are being felt alongside overweight, obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases in many poor households,” said Abdulaziz.
“In recent years, we’ve rightly focused many of our energies on addressing hunger, but what we must recognise is that ending hunger does not guarantee improved nutrition,” he added.
Communicable diseases are leading to catastrophic costs to individuals, to communities and to national healthcare systems in Africa. It is estimated that 11 million Africans fall into poverty annually due to high out-of-pocket payments for healthcare.