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Obesity is on the rise in Nairobi

Dennis Mworia is a Form Three student at Thika High School, he weighs 111kg. His mother, who has taken part in a slimming programme on TV, weight147 kilograms. His father, a contractor has diabetes and weighs more than 130kg.

At school, Dennis’ schoolmates make jokes about his weight, oversized clothes, and the fact that he finds it hard to keep up while running. He has very few friends. When school closes, and his dad doesn’t pick him, he will be forced to pay double the fare home because of his size.

His mother’s self esteem has been affected, and it worsens when other women call her ‘momo’ or rarely compliment her outfits.

This is the same case for many other families whose children are struggling with weight and obesity. Indeed, at the corner of most high schools, there is a small canteen that sells chapati, mandazi, chips, crisps, sweets, cakes, bhajia, bread, soda and burgers. The case is the same at many universities and colleges.

As the neighbourhood’s ‘businessman’, you may own one to supplement your income. Near the flyover of a highway in Nairobi, there is alady selling French fries and popcorn. Behind your office, there is a small fast food eatery which doesn’t run out of customers on any given day.

In town, on every street, there are at least five fast food restaurants. All day and night, several plates of fries, deep fried chicken and soda are shoved down thousands of customers’ throats. The next day, the cycle continues.


At home, when your daughter cleans up the house while the househelp is away, you get impressed and buy her a black forest cake. You promise your son pizza if he cleans the compound. And as you travel up country with your family to visit your ailing father, you make stopovers to buy chips, sausages that will be washed down with a bottle of soda.

The tuck shops in campuses have capitalised on the cravings for fast foods to make a kill. About 90 per cent of their stock is processed food which gets depleted before dusk. As a gentleman, especially after HELB disbursed their long overdue remittance, you will decide to treat your girlfriend by taking her to Thika Road Mall for lunch; where chips, a quarter chicken and a coke will set you back Sh240. You take photos of the food, post on Instagram, and influence your friends to do the same thing next weekend.


Urban residents are eating more fast food than ever. Junk food from up market fast food restaurants has become a status symbol for most us. We have ignored the age old wisdom that “take food like medicine when young, so that as you age, you do not take medicine as food”. In most meals, the vegetables and fruits are rare. If served, they are in the smallest quantities.


The problem is no longer a preserve of the rich and middle class. Traditionally, being overweight was seen as a sign of prosperity. But with time, even the low income consumers have developed a taste for Western-style fast food and have been trapped into the weight issues.

The latest statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicate that about a quarter (23 per cent) of Kenyan women aged 15 years and above are either overweight or obese. In contrast, only about seven per cent of men in the same age group suffer from the conditions.

According to WHO, many people are now suffering from heart diseases, cancers, diabetes, bone issues and psychological disorders due to their weight. The health agency asserts that obesity and being overweight are the fifth leading risk of global deaths. At least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of these conditions.

WHO notes that 44 per cent, 23 per cent and up to 41 per cent of diabetes, heart disease and cancer burdens respectively are attributable to overweight and obesity. Diabetes itself affects 3.5 million Kenyans and the number is fast increasing, bringing in even people of younger ages.


Pamela Adhiambo, a manager at a city bank is a worried mother. Her two daughters outweigh her by 38 kilograms. She explains that most of the time, her colleagues think they are her sisters.

“They have been eating much junk with the money I give them for lunch. I have even noticed that they are becoming lazier”, laments the 41 year old mother. Pamela has now decided that her daughters eat cooked food at home, which has more fruits and vegetables.

The behavior of Pamela’s girls belies the fact Nutrition and Dietetics lecturer, Regina Mboochi found out through her study on Obesity Prevalence and Associated Socio Economic Factors that Kenyans, especially those under 35 years love and consume too much processed food.

Mercy Nduku is 26 and has been fighting to lose weight for the last three years. She has managed to shed 26 kilograms and now weighs 82 kilograms. “I have been hitting the gym and eating healthy. It has been a tough journey, but I decided to stick to it.” The Marketing Executive explains that being overweight was taking a toll on her self esteem.

“You cannot fit in trendy clothes, your shoes can get torn any time and you feel uncomfortable in the company of slimmer girls at a party”, recalls Nduku.

Moses Silwa, a parent to two high school students has some insight into this obesity issues. “Parents, when visiting their children in school, buy them all manner of junk food. Even their shopping is full of junk.”


The university lecturer asserts that in one way or another, parents are to blame. “They know that junk is bad but they do not want to annoy their children. This is just poor parenting,” Silwa opines.

Elmelda Nyaga says that Television adverts and peer pressure are the biggest contribution to the overconsumption of junk foods. All day long, various fast foods, drinks and restaurants are advertised on Television targeting young people.

“It is time to come to grips with the fact that we have allowed the junk food industry and the mass media to brainwash our youth and turn them into fast food addicts. In supermarkets, the aroma greets you first before you struggle to the rear for vegetables.”

In the rural areas, this problem is not common. Monicah Asiyo, the headmistress at Kanyasrega Primary says that most of the foods are natural.

“Students will take sugarless porridge for breakfast, boiled maize and water for lunch and Ugali with Omena for supper. During the day, they will walk at least three kilometers to and from school and their mothers send them to fetch water in the evening. Good food, enough exercise”, says Asiyo.

She draws a contrast to urban schooling where children take Weetabix and Maandazi and are ferried by school buses.

Nutritionist Jane Maina agrees that the problem of obesity is now more complex as people are hooked to the convenient and availability of fast food.



“It is an addiction affecting both parents and children and nobody can bail the other out” she adds. Jane recommends a diet limited in fats and sugars but rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts.

Dr Wycliffe Guto of Christamarriane Hospital explins why junk is a health hazard.

“Junk food doesn’t contain the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy. As a result, you may feel chronically fatigued and lack the energy you need to complete daily tasks.” he says

Dr guto explains how the high levels of sugar in junk food puts your metabolism under stress.

“When you eat refined sugar, your pancreas secretes high amounts of insulin to prevent a dangerous spike in blood sugar levels that may lead to diabetes,” he says.

This sentiment is echoed by Masaba District Hospital’s Dr Moses Mwamba.

“With the large amounts of fat accumulating in your body, you will gain weight and become obese. This increases the risk for chronic illnesses such as heart disease and arthritis and can lead to have a heart attack.”

According to Dr Mwamba, the high levels of fat and sodium in junk foods can lead to high blood pressure or hypertension. Excessive dietary sodium has a negative effect on renal function.


With the diseases comes the cost of treatment which has gone through the roof. Diabetes medicines sold in Kenya this year were valued at Sh2.5 billion while those for hypertension cost patients Sh2 billion.

Overall the market for medicines for non-communicable diseases, which account for half of hospital admissions, this year, is estimated at Sh57.4 billion. That is an amount that can build two ‘Thika Superhighways’.

According to WHO, many middle income countries are now burdened with malnutrition and other dietary disorders affecting 35 per cent of children below the age of five years, exposing them to major childhood killers like diarrhoea and pneumonia, and obesity.

The battle is costly especially when coupled with the fact that Kenya is also tackling infectious diseases like HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria