Out of every 10 affluent and educated women of reproductive age in Kenya, about five are overweight or obese compared to their less educated counterparts, where only two are obese.
According to the Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS) 2022, 50 per cent of women aged 20 to 49 with more than secondary education are either obese or overweight compared to 26 per cent of those with no education.
The data released on Monday by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) also showed that about six in 10 women in the same age group in the highest wealth quintile are obese, compared to one in five women in the lowest wealth quintile.
The survey, which is conducted every 10 years, also revealed that a woman is more likely to be obese if she lives in an urban area, with 43 per cent of women in the 20–49 age group reporting being overweight or obese, compared to 39 per cent in rural areas.
The findings also show that the percentage of women falling in the obese category has increased, with the numbers rising from 38 per cent in the 2014 KDHS to 45 per cent in 2022.
The data shows that only 19 per cent of men of the same age are obese or overweight.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), being overweight or obese has a negative impact on a person’s health. Both are major risk factors for several chronic diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. In women, they have far-reaching effects on reproductive health as well.
The report, released by KNBS on Monday, used data on height, weight and age to calculate nutritional status, height-for-age and body mass index-for-age.
Some 18 per cent of adolescent females aged 15–19 are thin, with 3 per cent being moderately or severely thin, while 13 per cent of adolescent females are either overweight or obese. Further, 18 per cent of women aged 20–49 in the lowest wealth quintile are thin, compared to 3 per cent of those in the wealthiest group.
Ms Zain Omar represents millions of Kenyan women caught in the fight against obesity. Like many others, the 33-year-old’s health has been affected.
Last year, Zain’s doctor told her she was overweight.
“I was stunned,” Zain said. “I couldn’t really explain how I had got to the point where I was obese.”
She was also diagnosed with high blood pressure, highlighting the urgent need to regain control of her well-being.
Determined to make a change, Zain sought professional help. A physiotherapist was recommended to help with her back pain, a common complaint among those struggling with excess weight. She also sought the advice of a nutritionist.
Armed with personalised exercise routines and dietary advice, Ms Omar embarked on a gradual weight loss journey, aiming to lose the recommended 15 kilogrammes.
“It was a rollercoaster ride full of ups and downs,” Zain said. “There were times when I felt frustrated and overwhelmed, but I knew I had to prioritise my health. I didn’t want my weight to define me or limit my abilities. So I made a conscious decision to take control of my lifestyle.”
Zain’s weight also presented challenges in her daily life. At work, she relied on an orthopaedic chair to relieve pressure on her back, a constant reminder of the impact her weight had on her overall comfort and well-being. However, this served as additional motivation for her to persevere in her journey to a healthier self.
“The numbers don’t look good in other age groups and I’m afraid this could be our next pandemic as both lead to an increase in non-communicable diseases,” said Acting Director-General of Health Patrick Amoth.
According to the survey, chances of being overweight or obese increases with age, from 13 per cent in adolescents aged 15–19, to 32 per cent in women aged 20–29 and 55 per cent in women aged 40–49.
“The moment teenagers turn 20, the figure more than doubles. We really need to work with our teenagers to inculcate good eating habits and frequent physical activity so that we can avoid the burden of obesity and overweight,” said Dr Amoth.
Goal number two of the Kenya Health Policy 2014-2030 is to reduce the growing burden of non-communicable diseases, which present much earlier and require longer treatment and more time for health workers.
“If we are able to invest in this area in terms of prevention, then we are sure of the sustainability of our health financing to be able to provide the full range of services. Nutrition is the foundation for the health and development of children and adults. Dietary practices that support a healthy diet include eating a variety of different foods and food groups, and limiting consumption of sugary drinks and unhealthy foods,” the survey states.
It adds: “Eating a variety of unprocessed foods helps women get the right amount of essential vitamins and minerals. A healthy diet also protects against overweight, obesity and non-communicable diseases.”
The 10 healthy food groups listed in the survey include cereals, white or pale starchy roots, tubers and plantains, pulses (beans, peas and lentils), nuts and seeds, dairy (milk and dairy products), meat (including fish, poultry and organ meats), eggs, dark green leafy vegetables, vitamin A rich fruits and vegetables, other vegetables and fruits.
Women who consumed at least five of the 10 food groups 24 hours before the survey are classified as having a minimally adequate dietary diversity.
Deficiencies in micronutrients such as iron, iodine, vitamin A, folate and zinc can have devastating effects on the human body. Women, especially those of childbearing age, are particularly vulnerable due to their greater need for essential vitamins and minerals.
“Unhealthy foods and sugary drinks should be limited as they are associated with overweight and obesity and noncommunicable diseases. In women, overweight and obesity can affect reproductive health and increase complications in pregnancy,” the survey states.
According to the findings, the number of learned women with more than a secondary education who consume unhealthy foods has increased from 14 per cent in 2014 to 42 per cent in 2022. This means that four out of 10 educated women consume unhealthy foods.
More women consume sweet drinks, including fizzy drinks, at 70 per cent of women with no education compared to 75 per cent of those with more than secondary education . Some 45 per cent of wealthy women consume more unhealthy foods compared to 20 per cent in the lowest wealth quintile.
Studies show that exposure to sweetened beverages is associated with a range of health complications. A study dubbed Obesity and Women's Health: An evidence-based review, published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, found that being overweight or obese increases the relative risk of diabetes and coronary heart disease in women.
“Women who are obese have a higher risk of low back pain and knee osteoarthritis. Maternal obesity is associated with higher rates of caesarean section and higher rates of high-risk obstetric conditions such as diabetes and hypertension,” it states.