What you need to know:
- Non-communicable diseases continue to be a significant health concern in the region, with cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) being the leading cause of death.
- Recent studies have shown that trans fats, a type of unsaturated fat commonly found in processed foods, significantly increase the risk of CVDs.
Health experts have urged East African leaders to take immediate action to eliminate trans fats from food supplies in order to reduce the rising burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
Non-communicable diseases continue to be a significant health concern in the region, with cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) being the leading cause of death. Recent studies have shown that trans fats, a type of unsaturated fat commonly found in processed foods, significantly increase the risk of CVDs.
Trans fats, also known as trans fatty acids, are found in foods such as fried and baked goods, shortening, margarine, red meat, and dairy products. They contribute to cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
In Kenya, NCDs were responsible for 39 per cent of deaths in 2020, up from 27 per cent in 2014. More than half of these diseases occur in people aged 40 or younger.
Risk factors include unhealthy diets, tobacco consumption and a lack of exercise. Without robust measures, one in five adults and one in 10 children and teenagers are projected to be obese by December 2023, according to a 2022 World Health Organization (WHO) analysis.
The WHO recommends that trans-fat intake be limited to less than 1 per cent of total energy intake, equivalent to less than 2.2 grammes per day in a 2,000-calorie diet.
Unfortunately, many people in the East African region consume much more than this recommended amount. Trans fats have been shown to increase the risk of CVDs by raising cholesterol levels (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) and lowering cholesterol levels (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL).
In addition, trans fats have been linked to inflammation, insulin resistance and other health problems.
"We call on East African leaders to prioritise the regulation of trans fats to address the significant burden of non-communicable diseases, particularly cardiovascular diseases, in the region. A harmonised regulation of trans fats has the potential to promote health and save lives. The time for urgent action is now as the longer we wait, the more lives will be lost to these preventable diseases," said Celine Awuor, CEO of the International Institute for Legislative Affairs.
NCDs are estimated to cause about 540,000 deaths globally each year. In the East African Community, it is estimated that about 40 per cent of all deaths annually are caused by NCDs.
CVDs account for 25 per cent of all hospital admissions and are costly to manage, resulting in catastrophic spending at the household levels that sink vulnerable patients and their dependents into poverty, according to Dr Lilian Mbau, CEO of the Kenya Cardiac Society.
"Up to 80 per cent of these deaths can be prevented through reduction of risk factors such as unhealthy foods, sedentary lifestyles, smoking and excessive use of alcohol. It is estimated that up to 22 per cent of heart attacks are due to consumption of trans fats.
We urgently need to work towards putting in place policies and legislation to protect our population against exposure to trans fats and other unhealthy foods such as sugar-sweetened beverages borrowing from the successes made to regulate tobacco use," added Dr Mbau.
Gideon Ogutu, a nutrition scientist at the International Institute for Legislative Affairs, believes that by implementing a regional regulation on trans fats, the region can take a proactive approach to safeguarding our health and protecting ourselves from the dangers of these detrimental substances.
“It is imperative to recognise the critical importance of regulating trans fats, an abnormal fatty acid that acts in direct contrast to the beneficial properties of healthy fats. Consuming trans fats is not only void of nutritional value but poses a significant threat to our health,” noted Mr Ogutu
Experts are further concerned that Kenya's Food, Drugs, and Chemical Substance Act, Cap 254 (Legal Notice 115 of 2015), which attempts to regulate Industrially Produced Trans Fatty Acids (iTFA), cannot be implemented because it does not mention iTFA limits explicitly.