"Measure your height, weight." Strolling through the streets of Nairobi, weighing scales beckon pedestrians to calculate their body mass index (BMI) at a small fee.
Irrespective of class, obesity in Kenya is fast becoming an epidemic, one that has fostered an environment for the exploitation of Kenyans who want to get lean without breaking a sweat.
According to a 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in three women in Kenya are overweight, the risk going higher among women in upper socioeconomic groups.
Slimming creams, pills and teas, fad diets and other unregulated interventions are harmful, yet they are the easiest to access and quite affordable as opposed to gym memberships and consultations with nutritionists who can provide effective and long-lasting solutions for those who seek them.
To get to the root of how these unpopular methods became so widespread, one needs to understand where it all began.
The year is 1954 in post-war Britain: popular magazine Woman’s Own began advising its readers on different methods of losing weight, just months after the colonial power had abolished food rationing in the country.
A three-part illustrated series in the October 1954 issue of the magazine, titled “Trim your Figure”, then instructed British housewives how to lose weight while performing simple household chores.
Being thin was in, and the magazine had established it as a standard of post-war femininity for British women.
As Kenya got closer to independence, advertisements in national newspapers such as the Nation began to reflect the same standard Woman’s Own had set in 1954.
Notably, the earliest record of weight-loss advertising in Kenya was in the Sunday Nation of October 7, 1962.
A pill called Lemslim, marketed to women, claimed that when used consistently, one could lose 60lb (about 27kg) in just four months.
The product was from Britain and the advertisement featured white women, hence one can infer that it targeted British women settling in Kenya to adopt the habits of their counterparts back home.
Either way, the paper was accessible to all who could read it, which means that such advertisements could have had an influence on Africans as well.
After independence, the frequency of the advertisements increased.
A tonic called Veinoids was marketed to women while Lemslim started including men in its advertisements.
Diets also became the order of the day. A look at the Sunday Nation issue of July 11, 1965 features a two-page spread on a diet, with input from a nutritionist.
The doctor suggested a method called “scientific nibbling”, which involved eating six small meals a day as opposed to the major three.
It also featured a chart titled “TOO FAT? Check with this chart” that helped readers figure out if their weight was within the acceptable limits based on the average body mass index.
Over the years, Kenyans have become more susceptible to lifestyle diseases due to their eating habits, a direct result of rapid economic growth.
According to a report in 2015 by the Ministry of Health, lifestyle diseases account for over 50 per cent of total hospital admissions and 55 per cent of hospital deaths.
These diseases include diabetes, cancer and other cardiovascular diseases linked to poor nutrition and physical inactivity.
“You see, the reason the prevalence rates (of overweight/obesity) are very high is … poor dietary habits. People know how they should eat, but over the years, (they) have decided to just eat what is available,” explains Henry Ng’ethe, chairperson of the Nutrition Association of Kenya.
He attributes this to the high literacy rates, especially with the urban population, that leads to poor decision-making as opposed to their counterparts in rural areas when it comes to healthy eating.
This problem is further exacerbated by the accessibility and affordability of fast food as a readily available meal alternative.
Kenyans, it seems, love their junk food, and international fast-food chains as well as local ones have been keen to cash in on this profitable market.
The past 10 years have seen American franchises - KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, Hardee’s and Coldstone Creamery - setting up shop in Nairobi.
Zimbabwean company Innscor Africa, however, still dominates the Kenyan market with its Chicken Inn, Pizza Inn and Galito’s chains located at various petrol stations all over the country, with some staying open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Meals cost as low as Sh200 — why wouldn’t you want to buy one?
Recently, local food chain Java House Africa launched a new fast-food joint, Kukito, within the same price range as these others, a joint that has quickly become popular among young Kenyan consumers.
GETTING IN SHAPE
The case against getting fit through unsafe and unsustainable methods is one that has drawn the attention of people trying to make a difference by educating the public on eating better and exercising using their own bodies and histories as examples.
Popular body transformation coach Jane Mukami, also known as “Fit Kenyan Girl”, is one example.
In an interview on the K24 television show “Talk Central” in August 2018, Jane described her fitness journey as gradual — she started with two years of fad diets and marathons with no results.
As she was just about to give up and get liposuction to shed the extra fat, she consulted a bodybuilding coach, who changed her mind-set on how to effectively lose weight.
She narrates how he questioned her eating habits in relation to her workouts, stating that what you eat has more effect on your body weight than anything else. The results were evident within a six-month period.
Word of her dramatic weight loss made the rounds on social media, and more Kenyans got curious about how she achieved it.
As of October 2017, when her Facebook pages were hacked and subsequently deleted, she had garnered about 550,000 followers.
The pages, 21 Days of Change and 10-Day Detox, have since been restored and made private.
However, testimonials on her website show how ordinary Kenyans have altered their bodies through a change in their eating habits.
The 10-day detox in particular is quite immersive, involving juicing and calorific measurement as one transitions into “clean” eating.
Testimonials show that people lose about four to 10kg within this period, with significant lifestyle improvements.
Does the detox work in the long run, though? Karen Muriuki, 23, recently tried it after witnessing her mother’s transformation — her mother lost five kilogrammes during the 10-day period.
Like many who were pleased with this change, she incorporated the programme as part of her lifestyle.
“She does it about once every two months,” says Muriuki, adding, “Before starting the detox, I’d been practising the 16/8 intermittent fasting for about a year or so. That meant that I fasted for 16 hours (10pm to 2pm) and my eating window was between 2pm and 10pm.”
Intermittent fasting is a method of weight loss that has gained popularity all over the globe.
It is preferred because it does not mean you have to change what you eat, but when you eat it. Its proponents claim that it helps you get the most out of your meals.
In a previous interview with the Nation, Ng’ethe, the chairperson of the Nutrition Association of Kenya, warned against its effects, especially on women’s bodies.
“There are vitamins that you must take into your body every day, and if they are not provided, it might result in a certain deficiency,” he said.
Karen says that although she managed to meet her weight target through this method, without monitoring what she ate, it was easy to regain a few kilogrammes.
She started at 65kg and lost five kilogrammes with this method, before regaining three. After this, she decided to try the 10-day detox.
“I lost four kilogrammes, from 63kg to 59kg,” she says. “To maintain this weight, I can no longer have a heavy meal at night because the detox really helped improve my sleep. Also, I no longer wake up feeling bloated,” she says.
It seems that more Kenyans are more conscious about their nutrition, though there is still a lot more to be done from both ends.
Ng’ethe illustrates the tug of war of demand and supply, which undermines healthy living.
“The biggest challenge we have in the country right now is that the counties and national government do not have adequate nutritionists,” he says.
And continues: “If we look at the way the prevalence rates of non-communicable diseases are going up, this simply means that we need to adopt more preventive health (interventions) rather than the curative, which these governments are focusing on,” he explains.
He elaborates this by saying that the government focuses on solutions to these lifestyle diseases by investing in machines and other resources while neglecting the root of the problem.
“They should also ensure that we have nutritionists at the community level, where everyone can easily access their services,” he advises.
Kenyans are also getting more health-conscious, with pavements in upmarket and middle-class neighbourhoods dotted with men and women of all ages jogging or taking morning and evening walks to get their share of physical activity.
Their habits in relation to visiting nutritionists are also improving. However, Ng’ethe points out that a majority of those who seek this consultation are women.
Men often seek diet adjustments after the fact to manage the disease contracted, as opposed to seeking help as a preventive measure.
“If you see a man coming (to consult), it means that there is usually something bothering them. The highest number of those that come are often suffering from a non-communicable disease,” he tells the Nation.
“Women are more conscious about their health than men. (They) have a number of challenges as opposed to men,” he says.
As more Kenyans seek to improve their lives and feel more confident about their body image and health, a steady decline in the use of unsafe methods of weight loss should be expected.
That said, while losing weight is often linked to better health according to medical professionals, the pressure placed on those who are well within their limits to look a certain way by those who are unqualified to pass such judgment allows unsafe methods to thrive unchecked.
Improving accessibility to healthier interventions is imperative, but the conversation around overweight and obesity should stray from a point of ridicule to encourage healthier methods of staying in shape as a whole.
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In countries like Mauritania, a practice called ‘leblouh’ entails force-feeding girls from as young as five years to achieve a full figure and be attractive enough for marriage.
The girls are then married off from age 12. To the ancient Moors, ancestors of the present citizens of Mauritania, a fat wife was seen as a symbol of a man’s wealth as it showed that he had the capacity to feed her while others perished in the midst of drought.
In an interview with The Guardian in March 2009, Aminetou Mint Ely, a women’s rights activist, said, "In Mauritania, a woman's size indicates the amount of space she occupies in her husband's heart."
Closer to home, in Uganda, women in the Bakiga community were required to stay in seclusion for a month before marriage where they would be overfed to fatten them — they were also taught how to be good wives.
In February 2019, the Ministry of Tourism there came under fire from women’s rights activists when it unveiled a campaign that marketed the curvy bodies of Ugandan women as a tourist attraction.