Big bellies lock Kenyan youths from army jobs

Sunday May 9 2010

Chicken at a fast food restaurant may be popular with young people but junk food is leading to the onset of diseases at an early age. Photo/ FILE

Chicken at a fast food restaurant may be popular with young people but junk food is leading to the onset of diseases at an early age. Photo/ FILE 

By GATONYE GATHURA

Thousands of young Kenyans hoping to make a career in the uniformed forces may never realise their dreams because of increasing obesity and early onset of other lifestyle diseases.

This is true for obese urban youth who have been found to develop diabetes at an early age even before they establish their careers.

While there is no shortage for recruits into the forces in Kenya, the increase in youth obesity is a concern at the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation. The ministry is developing a policy to incorporate more exercise, healthy eating and responsible living.

Kenyatta University

According to Dr Vincent Onywera, a lecturer at Kenyatta University’s Exercise, Recreation and Sports Science department, youth obesity is a major problem in Kenya and it is already affecting career choice and progression.

“We could be facing a career and health crisis in just about five years because of lifestyle diseases,” Dr Onywera, whose recent research indicated that 16.7 per cent of town girls and 6.8 per cent of boys are overweight, said.

“Most of these youngsters are likely to carry their obesity into adulthood, consequently undermining their competitiveness in careers which demand high physical fitness levels like the armed forces and sports,” says the researcher.

In the United States, the situation is so bad that it is said to be undermining the country’s future capacity to fight. More than a quarter of young Americans are too fat to fight. Writing in the Washington Post last week, two US ex-commanders asked the government to introduce laws requiring children be fed food with less sugar, salt and fat.

John Shalikashvili and Hugh Shelton, both former chairmen of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, were joining 130 other retired generals in a campaign to stop the fat epidemic among the youth.

While the Kenyan military does not specifically have a weight requirement as a recruitment condition, physical fitness is. This is established through several physical exercises during recruitment for some entry levels. Obese youth, says Dr Onywera, are finding it difficult to cope in school sports and physical fitness classes.

“We are telling instructors to streamline their activities to make sure those who have weight problems can participate equitably.” Complicating the situation are recent findings indicating that five out of every 120 children in Kenya suffer from Type 2 diabetes.

The increase in the disease prevalence among children has been attributed to obesity and lack of physical exercises. “It never used to be a cause of alarm before, but trends suggest that we need to be worried about it now,” Dr Paul Laigong’, a paediatrician at Gertrude’s Garden Children’s Hospital said in an earlier interview with the Nation.

Dr Laigong’ says Type 2 diabetes may be genetic but most cases are a result of mothers leading unhealthy lifestyles during pregnancy and passing on the same habits to their children after birth. The problem does not end there; some medical experts are increasingly associating overweight and obesity as a trigger to some forms of arthritis.

Arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disease affecting mainly the joints, has been historically found to peak in age 60. The disease, which is known to cut careers short because of its debilitating nature, is increasingly affecting younger people even before they start on a career.

Researchers at Kenyatta National Hospital and the University of Nairobi recently tracked 60 rheumatoid arthritis patients at the hospital and concluded that the disease was increasingly attacking younger Kenyans. The researchers led by Dr B.O. Owino of KNH, say the disease peaks at two age brackets; at between 20 and 29 when most would be expected to be entering the job market and again at age 40 to 49 when most should be at the peak of their careers.

According to the study, published in the May issue of the East African Medical Journal, the disease was previously known to peak at age 43 but now there are increasing cases of it peaking below 20 years.