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Why obesity in Kenya is a weighty issue

Evelyn Makena @evemake_g

The mention of malnutrition conjures images of starved, stunted, underweight individuals with frail bodies. But rarely is excess weight linked to malnutrition.  Ironical as it may sound, Kenya grapples with two problems that feature on the extreme of the nutrition continuum; under-nutrition, which manifests in nutrients deficiency and over-nutrition, which comes in the form of obesity and being overweight. 

While in the past a lot of focus was given to under-nutrition, tables have turned and now obesity, which is a form of malnutrition, features as an enormous health concern in the country. Recent statistics show that one in every 10 people in Kenya is obese while one in every three women grapples with obesity.

Obesity is defined as excessive accumulation of fat that puts one’s health at risk. According to Dr Mokeira Nyamache of The Karen Hospital, obesity is measured through Body Mass Index BMI where an individual’s height is divided by the square of their height. “Ideally, a person should have a BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9. A person with a BMI above that is considered obese or overweight,” she says.

Better living standards experienced in Kenya owing to a growing economy have largely contributed to bulging waistlines. In Kenya and Africa in general, more people are moving from low to middle-economic status. More people are shunning physical activity such as walking and instead opt for the more convenient means such as driving. The sedentary lifestyle has led to an influx of obesity and overweight people.

More Kenyans have embraced fast foods and ditched consumption of traditional foods, which are more nutritious. “Fast foods are high in energy, packed with cholesterol and high in fat content.

People are also not taking vegetables,” says Mokeira. Increased alcohol intake among Kenyans has worsened the obesity problem.  Some ailments that require daily medication such as hormonal supplements predispose patients to accumulating excess fat as they alter the metabolism.

Even as Kenya and the continent in general epitomises the paradoxes of underweight and overweight population, obesity is not only a local problem but, a global one.

A recent study conducted in US showed that one in every four people would be obese in the next 30 years. The study that was based on analysis of World Health Organisation data from countries globally revealed that one in every eight people were likely to develop type 2 diabetes as a result of obesity.

Besides making one vulnerable to diabetes, obesity increases the risk of developing hypertension, strokes, kidney disease, arthritis and several types of cancers. “The condition increases the risk of getting ovarian, breast, endometrium and colon cancer, most of which affect women,” says Mokeira. Due to the stigma and low self-image that is experienced by obese individuals, most are likely to have mental health conditions such as depression.

The high prevalence rate of obesity among women is linked to their genetic make-up.  Contraceptives, which are a method of family planning have rendered many women culprits of excess weight.

“Most contraceptives have hormones, especially progesterone which has been directly linked to obesity,” says Mokeira. Childhood obesity is also another major trend in obesity in Kenya causing a health concern to parents. The phenomena is mainly pinned on unhealthy eating habits and minimal physical activity among children.

Even with the alarming local and global statistics on obesity experts say that a shift in lifestyle is one of the most effective ways of fighting the disease. “Eating healthy, getting enough rest and exercising help in fighting the chronic condition,” says Dr Dennis Nturibi. The doctor who has over 10 years experience in the field also battled obesity.

He grew up an obese child and the weight problem persisted into adulthood.  Nturibi made a resolve to cut down on his weight in 2008 when he hit 92 kgs.  “I made lifestyle modifications such as exercising, incorporating fruits and vegetables in my diet, getting enough rest and in 2012, I had attained my ideal weight of 72 kgs,” he reveals. Apart from lifestyle changes other treatment options include taking medication and surgery in extreme cases.

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