Survey finds rich and educated women at risk of obesity


Out of 10 wealthy and educated women of reproductive age, about five are overweight.

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

Out of 10 wealthy and educated women of reproductive age, about five are overweight or obese, compared to other women where only two are obese, a study has shown.

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 women 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 published every five 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 same 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 into the obese category has increased from 38 per cent in the 2014 KDHS to 45 per cent in 2022.

This begs the question as to why urban women have fallen off the nutritional wagon, and what this means for their health.

The data also show that only 19 per cent of men of the same age are obese or overweight.

According to the World Health Organisation, overweight and obesity have a negative impact on the health of many people. Both are major risk factors for several chronic diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Obesity and overweight in women have far-reaching effects on both reproductive health and chronic diseases.

The report, released on Monday, used data on height, weight and age to calculate nutritional status, height-for-age and body mass index-for-age.

The findings show that 18 per cent of adolescent females aged 15-19 are thin, with three being moderately or severely thin, while 13 per cent of adolescent females are either overweight or obese.

In the report, 18 per cent of women aged 20 to 49 in the lowest wealth quintile are thin, compared with three of the women in the highest wealth quintile.

Ms Zain Omar represents thousands of Kenyan women caught in the battle against obesity.

Like many others, the 33-year-old's health and waistline have been affected by changes brought about by the pandemic.

Last year, Ms Omar's doctor broke the news to her that she was overweight.

"I was stunned," she confessed, reflecting on the moment of realisation. "I couldn't really explain how I had got to the point where I was obese.”

She was diagnosed with high blood pressure, which highlighted the urgent need to regain control of her health.

Determined to make a change, Ms Omar sought professional help. A physiotherapist was recommended to address her back pain, a common complaint among those struggling with excess weight.

She also sought the advice of a nutritionist to deal with her weight problems. Armed with personalised exercise routines and dietary changes, Ms Omar embarked on a gradual weight loss journey, aiming to lose the recommended 15 kilogrammes.

"It was a roller-coaster ride," she 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."

Ms Omar’s weight also posed 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 an 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.

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.

"Diet 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 says.

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."

According to the survey, 10 healthy food groups include cereals, white/pale starchy roots, tubers and plantains, legumes (beans, peas and lentils), nuts and seeds, dairy (milk and dairy products), meat (meat, fish, poultry and organ meats), eggs, dark green leafy vegetables, Vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables, other vegetables and other fruits.

Women who consumed at least five of the 10 possible 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. Minimum dietary diversity is important for micronutrient adequacy.

"Unhealthy foods and sugary drinks should be limited as they are associated with overweight and obesity and non-communicable diseases. In women, overweight and obesity can affect reproductive health and increase complications in pregnancy.

According to the findings, the number of 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, with 70 per cent of women with no education compared to 75 per cent with more than secondary education. 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 entitled 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," the report said.