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Survey: Many prefer big bodies despite health risks

By GATONYE GATHURA

NAIROBI, KENYA: As Kenyans eat their way through Christmas, new evidence indicates many Nairobians prefer heavy bodies despite the many health risks that come with too much fat.

In a survey of 4,934 adults from the Korogocho and Viwandani settlements in Nairobi, researchers report high levels of obesity, with many of the overweight saying they are proud of their sizes and some hoping they could be bigger.

The survey, which was released a week after the Jubilee festivities and just before Christmas day, found 43.4 per cent of women and 17.3 per cent of men to be overweight or obese.

Most of those who were overweight, the study by the Nairobi-based African Population and Health Research Centre says, tended to underestimate their weight, particularly the women.

Despite repeated messages on the health dangers of too much fat, the researchers were surprised that most of the respondents, and especially women, preferred a highly padded body.

“A larger body size was commonly assumed to reflect good health and higher social status and may thus be considered desirable,” says the study published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

When the participants, who included 2,669 men and 2,265 women, were shown and asked to choose the figure they would like to look like from a set of drawings (see graphic) many tended to go for the heavy figures.

The images ranged from very thin to very obese, with participants being asked to identify the graphic which most accurately depicted the body size one would wish to have.

“More than half of women and men classified as overweight or obese indicated a preference for figures that were overweight or obese,” says the study, which was led by Dr Remare Ettarh, now with the University of British Columbia.

OBESE IMAGE

For example, 14.8 per cent of women chose an obese image as ideal while 20.6 per cent of men chose an obese image as ideal.

Dr Ettarh and the team concluded that what many people in Nairobi conceive to be an ideal body size is not based on any medical facts. Further they argue that messages linking obesity to health risks such as diabetes and heart conditions are not reaching such groups or are not being heeded.

“The implications of excess body weight as a risk factor for lifestyle diseases are not readily apparent to most residents in poor settlements because of low levels of education and the lack of emphasis on non-communicable diseases.”

While this study gauged whether many residents of Nairobi are really worried about that extra fat, an earlier one by Dr Regina Mbochi of Kenyatta University graphically described the contents of the kitchen of a well-to-do Nairobi woman.

In the survey published in the September issue of the BMC Public Health journal, Dr Mbochi tells of a kitchen with a high presence of beef, chicken, processed meats, eggs and alcohol.

She says most certainly the women in the household are obese or overweight. These items are most likely to have more than doubled with the festive season.

Dr Mbochi who had sampled 365 women aged between 25 and 54 with high incomes says the more rooms there are in their homes, the more likelihood that the older women have big waistlines, carry a lot of fat and are big domestic spenders.

For some reason that is not explained in the study, women who are divorced or widowed and have good income are most likely to carry more weight and fat.

This, the study says, is identifiable by the quality and number of household items, the number of rooms in the house and ownership of a plot or a motor car.

According to the researchers, such household items included a television, radio, refrigerator, cooker with oven, sofa set, microwave, home computer, mobile phone, landline, land or plot, and a vehicle.