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Obesity among Kenyan women worries health experts

Women in Kenya are the most affected by obesity due to pregnancies and slowed metabolism as they grow older, a new report shows.

The Global Nutrition Report (GNR) 2016 released last week says the level of obesity in Kenya is currently approaching 50 per cent among women residing in urban areas, aged between 19 and 49. The same scenario is facing Ghana, Mauritania, Niger, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

“In Kenya, approximately one in two women living in urban areas and one in four living in rural areas is overweight or obese, as are approximately 15 per cent of adolescent girls (ages 15-18) living in urban areas and eight per cent living in rural areas,” the report said.


Children have not been left behind, with five per cent of those below the age of five affected too.

Another study, Non-Communicable Diseases Step survey last year, indicated that 27 per cent of Kenyans are either overweight or obese with the percentage being significantly higher in women than men.

Gladys Mugambi, head of nutrition and dietetics at the Ministry of Health, said that women in Kenya are the most affected by obesity because of their advancing age, which slows down the metabolic rate, and the weight gained during and after pregnancy.

“Most women gaining weight during pregnancy is due to uncontrolled cravings and the belief that they are eating for two — where they end up eating more than they should.

“After birth they again pile more weight because of overeating in the belief that they are doing so to produce ‘enough’ breast milk for the nursing baby,” she said adding that women’s greatest problem is their choice of food where they eat a lot of sugar, fats and carbohydrates.

The GNR report says obesity and overweight levels are increasing in both rich and poor countries, affecting two billion people globally.


Obesity is country’s latest headache and health experts are now worried that if not addressed immediately, the epidemic (as the report declared it) is likely to grow to unmanageable heights and put a strain on an already fragile health system.

The findings, experts say, have largely been contributed by lifestyle change that the country has undergone over the past few years.

The growth of the middle class with more disposable income and Kenyans’ growing appetite for fast foods served by international restaurants in the country is seen as one of the major contributors.

Over the past five years big players in the fast food industry such as South African seafood chain Ocean Basket, US fast-food giant KFC, Sandwich chain Subway, ice cream seller Cold Stone Creamery, Japanese firm Toridoll and Domino’s Pizza have opened stores in Kenya.


“The local environment has also changed, and there are more fast food joints than ever before, people are slowly adopting the western style of eating, there are more hotels serving exotic foods and Kenyans want to experiment. These hotels are serving portions that are beyond what people require because they lack information on the right portion,” says Ms Mugambi.

Increasing incidence of obesity has also led to a rise in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that currently account for 27 per cent of deaths of people aged between 30 and 70 in Kenya, the report added.
The report shows that the lifestyle diseases are taking a considerable proportion of the budget set aside for healthcare in Kenya.

The economic costs of these nutrition-related NCDs are high and obesity treatment alone consumes two to 20 per cent of healthcare expenses. Despite significant economic burden, the report said that there is little published information about the financing directed to prevent and control nutrition-related NCDs.

In the National Nutrition Action plan (2012-2017) Kenya outlines activities of dealing with the growing levels of obesity and overweight and in preventing, managing, and controlling nutrition-related NCDs such as scaling up measurement of body mass index and waist circumference as well as improving nutrition in schools.

However, Health secretary Cleopa Mailu says funding remains the greatest setback in war on NCDs.

“While Kenya has made tremendous steps in ensuring that nutrition security is realised the country still faces a number of challenges at county level that include insufficient resources, limited high level engagement for nutrition and inadequate nutrition  staff in some counties,” he says.