Supermarket food linked to obesity, diabetes

By Gatonye Gathura

Kenyans purchasing their food from supermarket are more likely to be obese and diabetic compared to those buying from traditional markets.

A new study has compared the two groups of shoppers finding those buying food from supermarkets to be heavier and at higher risk of diabetes.

The research carried out in three small towns of Kenya also showed supermarket shoppers to be at higher risk of developing heart complications.

Consuming supermarket foods, the study says increases the likelihood of overweight or obesity by 20 percentage points and the likelihood of being pre-diabetic by 16 percentage points.

Also the likelihood of heart conditions goes up by seven percentage points, even after accounting for other factors such as gender, education and economic status.

The study: Supermarket purchase contributes to nutrition-related non-communicable diseases in urban Kenya, appeared on Thursday in the scientific journal Plos One.

The two-phase study overseen by Matin Qaim of the University of Goettingen, Germany and also involving the University of Nairobi and the Egerton University’s affiliated Tegemeo Institute concludes supermarkets are executing a rapid negative change of nutrition in Kenya.

The researchers warn that negative health effects from supermarket foods can be very rapid as demonstrated in their two arm study first in 2012 and then in 2015.

Within the three years, they say the prevalence of overweight had increased from 27 per cent to 32 per cent, with the rates of obesity jumping from 14 per cent to 22 per cent in the study population.

The first arm of the study was carried out among 831 participants in 2012 in the small towns of Ol Kalou and Njabini in Nyandarua County and Mwea in Kirinyaga County.

The three towns are in Central Kenya and apart from Njabini the others had a supermarket then. Njabini has since established a supermarket.

“We chose Central Kenya because it has the second highest prevalence of overweight and obesity rates in Kenya after Nairobi,” said the first study published in 2015 in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

They also wanted participants who get their foods directly from the farm or traditional markets alongside those feeding from supermarkets.

The researchers had collected data on types of foods consumed by participating families and where it had been sourced from.

Thy also carried out body measurements (anthropometric) which can inform on ones risk to a wide range of disease including hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, gallstones, arthritis, and some forms of cancer.

The team found households purchasing foods from supermarkets to consume higher quantities of processed snacks, fats and oils, soft drinks, meat and fish, and processed grains.

On the other hand, such households, the study says consume significantly lower quantities of vegetables and unprocessed grains.  They also found supermarkets in small towns hardly stock vegetables or fresh fruits.

“These differences in diets may contribute to increased overweight and obesity among supermarket buyers and thus also to a higher prevalence of lifestyle diseases,” suggested the study.

To confirm these suggestions, some of the researchers returned to the same population in 2015 and now report confirming that indeed supermarket foods are contributing to increasing obesity and other lifestyle diseases.

Measurements, including weight, height, waist and hip circumference, blood pressure, and fasting blood glucose, were taken for 550 adult males and females.

Out of all study participants, more than half lived in households that purchased food in supermarkets with the rest, 258, getting their foods from other sources.

The study says supermarket shoppers had higher rates of obesity and overweight compared to groups getting their food from the farm or traditional markets.

“Rates of overweight and obesity were significantly higher among individuals that purchased food in supermarkets; they also had higher rates of pre-diabetic symptoms,”

The researchers however caution against a quick condemnation of supermarkets as they also play a positive role in the food supply chain, hygiene and support local economies.

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