Regulate food apps to reduce cases of obesity, WHO tells countries

Food Delivery Apps

A food deliveryman prepares to set off with orders from a restaurant. 

Photo credit: Chandan Khanna | AFP

The increase in the number of app-based businesses delivering food to consumers’ doorsteps is contributing to the rise in obesity, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned.

The apps, WHO said, are changing the way people eat and many are consuming unhealthy food with little exercise. The agency said the number of children who are overweight is worrying.

Meal-delivery apps, for example, play a significant role in increasing consumption of high-fat and high-sugar food and drinks, the agency said.

More than 10 food-delivery apps operate in Kenya, with the most popular ones including Uber Eats, Glovo, Jumia Food and Yum Deliveries.

Research in the UK suggests that eating a takeaway meal means consuming 200 more calories per day on average than when eating food prepared at home. Over the course of a week, this could mean a child eats the equivalent of an extra day's worth of calories.

But the report, presented at the European Congress on Obesity, also suggests online food and meal delivery systems can be used in a positive way to improve diets, access to healthy food and well-being.

“After delivery of the unhealthy meal, most of them eat and spend more time sitting rather than being active,” says the report

Carrying too much body fat increases the risk of many diseases, including 13 types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart problems and lung conditions. It is also the main cause of disability, the report says.

Another report, “WHO European Regional Obesity Report 2022”, says overweight and obesity rates have reached "epidemic proportions", with only the Americas having a higher level of obese adults than Europe.

“Obesity is ‘a complex disease’ and much more than the combination of an unhealthy diet and a lack of physical activity, obesity knows no borders," said Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe.

It estimates the problem causes 1.2 million deaths every year in Europe – 13 per cent of all deaths.

The journey to obesity in children starts with their parents and guardians, says Dr Walter Otieno, a paediatrician in Western Kenya.

“If you just decide that your child is going to eat clean and have homemade food, then we are likely to reduce the number of children developing obesity, but to some parents, giving the app food including pizzas and the deep-fried chicken is a sign of love yet we are killing our children silently,” he warned.

He said even soft drinks full of sugar should be avoided because those are the root causes of diseases in future.

“Just cook healthy meals at home and give your child water or tea with less sugar,” he said.

The WHO suggests restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, cutting the cost of healthy food and encouraging all ages to exercise more.

In the UK, labelling rules have been developed to tackle obesity, including requiring large restaurants and cafes to show calorie information.

According to the World Obesity Federation, 8.4 percent of children aged five to nine or 670,834 children in Kenya are likely to become obese by the year 2030.

Some 5.5 percent of children aged 10 to 19 or 793,121 children in Kenya will be obese by the year 2030. In total, 1,463,954 children are expected to be obese within the next 10 years.

Obesity is a condition in which a person carries excess body weight with a body mass index (BMI) of over 30.

Children under the age of five, the WHO says, are obese if their weight-to-height ratio is greater than three standard deviations above the WHO Child Growth Standards median.

The condition occurs when there is an imbalance between the calories a person consumes and the calories a person burns. This imbalance follows the uptake of foods that are high in fat and sugars, coupled with a lack of physical activity.

Obesity is also caused by genetic factors. The body mass index is 25 to 40 percent hereditary. However, the genetic factor only affects weight when combined with environmental and behavioural factors such as poor eating habits. Genetic factors account for less than five percent of cases of childhood obesity.

Obesity is a leading risk factor for diabetes and is estimated to account for between 80 and 85 percent of the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

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