At this moment, the number of people who are obese/overweight in the world exceeds those who are starving, with 2.2 billion people worldwide currently being overweight/obese.
Obesity is not merely attributable to excess food consumption driven by one’s lack of self-control. Research has shown that humans reach out for high-caloric foods when faced with overwhelming and stressful situations and this leads to overconsumption of calories and increased incidence of obesity.
Other than personal factors, environmental factors like easy access to high-caloric foods at affordable prices is a key driver of the obesity epidemic. Many of Kenya’s urban areas have morphed into food swamps, where a high concentration of outlets sell less nutritious foods and junk food and sugar-sweetened drinks are marketed relentlessly. The food industry knows how vulnerable we are to food placement and availability and therefore fast food joints and convenience stores are placed in prominent locations that we cannot avoid.
Some countries have regulations that require fast food restaurants to display nutritional information on their products, posters, menus and store websites. Others have zoning regulations for fast food restaurants and banned fast food outlets in certain locations, restricted their density in a given area and regulated the distance between fast food outlets and sites such as schools.
It is time that we approached the obesity pandemic from a lens of opportunity and not of shame. Let’s stop approaching obesity as a personal problem and tackle it as a systemic issue. Change must also be instituted at National level.
Policy makers and stakeholders within the Ministries of Health, Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Co-operatives need to come up with standards and regulations to protect us from food swamps and their health effects by creating safer food environments for Kenyans. High-leverage policies targeting obesity prevention would change original structures and create a context in which people have less chance to form or maintain undesirable food habits.
Additionally, there is need to generate greater public awareness on the health dangers of obesity. Community efforts should focus on supporting an active lifestyle and healthy eating, securing a healthy food culture for generations to come. It is indeed time to drain food swamps.
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The writer is a physician