Obesity is a sickness, not symbol of prosperity

Thursday, January 23rd, 2020 00:00 |
Obese. Photo/Courtesy

Emmanuel Atamba 

Growing up, being overweight or obese was never a problem. Parents with children too heavier for their age would even be congratulated for “feeding their children very well.”

 As a matter of fact, being overweight is still considered a blessing. You will hear comments such as “Looks like you are doing well,” or “You are eating well,” directed at people who are overweight. 

Having a kitambi (large belly) can easily land you the chairman’s seat in a village committee. 

That is how we interpret — or rather misinterpret — what is a growing threat to human health: the obesity and overweight problem.

The terms “overweight” and “obesity” refer to body weight that is greater than what is considered normal or healthy for a certain height. 

This condition could affect physical activity as well as overall health of the person.

According to a joint report by UNICEF, WHO and World Bank Group, more than 3.4 million Kenyan adults are obese and 4.1 per cent of children under five are overweight. The report says 13 per cent  of adolescents are obese. 

The Kenya National Demographic and Health Survey 2014, found that more than 33 per cent of  women were either obese or overweight with about 10 per cent  falling within the obesity category.

About six per cent of children under five years and five per cent of men were  classified as obese. 

This is an increase of more than eight per cent in obesity or overweight cases from the prevalence found in the 2008-09 KDHS report. 

The effects of obesity on the health on health goes beyond interference with physical activity.

According to WHO, obesity is a risk factor to other health issues. This includes heart problems, hypertension, immobility and even disability and at least 13 forms of cancer.

There is no clear plan by the government to address the problem. The Ministry of Health’s strategic plan mentions promotion of healthy diets to reduce reliance on high fat and sugar foods.

There is, however, very little to show. Food promotions and advertisements continue to be controlled by profit-oriented corporations that focus on sales. Most of the advertisements target children.

It is easy to think of obesity and weight management as an issue of personal choice, discipline and “eating just enough” but this is not always the case.

There are a lot more factors that lead people to food choices or eating and lifestyle habits that contribute to obesity. 

Most of these issues can be traced back to our food system. Inadequate access to healthy, fresh food due to low incomes or poor market systems is one of the factors contributing to the consumption of unhealthy foods.

Lack of awareness and access to information on nutrition and healthy eating habits also contribute to unhealthy food choices.

There is need to create awareness about obesity, its effects on health, contributing factors, management and ways to prevent it.

Awareness is important to help the people who are affected to better manage the condition, possibly get out of it and reduce new cases. The awareness should cover food choices and lifestyle change, too.

Food promotion and advertisements need to be regulated to ensure they instill healthy eating habits.

Our food and farming systems also need fixing. Our policies and agri-investments, both public and private, primarily focus on production of staples and select horticultural value-chains leading to declining dietary diversity. 

Recent studies show that the average Kenyan eats only four types of food in 24 hours whereas FAO, WFP recommend eating of 12 types in a day. These issues can only be fixed by better food and nutrition policies and programmes.

The obesity and overweight problem is just too big to be mistaken for something else. We must act before it is too late. Fighting obesity requires a multifaceted approach and needs to be supported by both the public and the private sectors.

The government should put in place and implement effective and innovative policies to better regulate the food industry and ensure access to healthy, nutritious food for all. — The writer is the Route to Food ambassador

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