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February 23, 2019

What happens when people get a bit more money?

When you compare the body of a long distance runner and a weightlifter side by side they could not be more different. The weightlifter will be compact, muscles bulging in every direction. The long distance runner will be small bodied, wiry in appearance. Even behaviour seems to be different. The long distance runner spends much time alone running, listening to their body and the character of a long distance runner is one that after winning a marathon on 10,000 metres race waves at the crowd with a small smile and then melts away.

The weight lifter on the other hand are noisier, given to punching the air, shouting and jumping up and down or even somersaulting with excitement especially after lifting a very heavy weight. Two athletes on the surface different but underneath they both need to have lots of power. For the long distance athlete the goal is for the muscles to deliver continuous power as they run for kilometre after kilometre.

For the weight lifter they require all their power for less than a minute to lift some huge weight. Both need diets a lot of calories to meet the necessary energy expenditure but require quite different diets to end up how they look and perform. When you look at international competitions the winners of long distance athletic events tend to come from poor developing countries while weightlifting is the preserve of middle-income countries.

Every low-income country wants to develop economically. Most governments of the last 80 years or so are obsessed with economic growth figures. And every few months, a precise figure is announced, in Kenya’s case usually to revise it meaning that probably no one knows exactly what the figure should be. But the basic idea of economic growth is that we should produce more than we need. Then to the surplus we should ‘value add’.

Among the benefits of value addition is that the government can then earn some revenue in the form of value added tax, which can then be used to make the lives of those less fortunate in society better. Since agriculture is the main source of unemployment in this country, much of the talk is about improving

agriculture so that there is more food grown and more industry associated with agriculture.

The problem however is that as the economy prospers people also end up getting more obese. The reasons for this can be divided into two. With increased food availability people end up eating more food. When there is a snack available you will nibble.

The second reason is as the economy grows the time value for people increases and so they spend less time moving about physically and look for more efficient ways time wise getting about.

On writing a note to someone why get up to walk to the post office when clicking send does the trick. So economic growth contrary to the picture of industrial production and increased activity is really a picture of increasing physical non-movement with eating more.

A half-reason to compound the first two reasons is that the food eaten is richer and therefore more calorie dense than the simple foods eaten by poor people. The poor person will eat roasted maize as snack usually near their home; while for the richer person it will be tortilla crisps eaten further away from home as they eat less at home.Salt, sugar, oil and preservative have been value added.

Economic growth done by encouraging industries to value add, needs to be guided by the ministry of health so that the true costs of economic growth are captured. It is estimated in developed countries that obesity accounts for up nine percent of healthcare costs. We might not be there collectively as a country but for a certain strata of society, obesity is a problem. A quarter of women in urban areas are classified as obese and overweight.

The consequences eventually appear in the form of increased diabetes, hypertension and other non-communicable diseases. The issue is not to blame the individual alone, as health promotion to eat better and exercise can only work so far in the face of clever adverts by food companies and public policies that favour economic growth alone. If we do succeed in becoming a true middle-income country with a per capita in the high thousands of dollars, then one thing is guaranteed, Kenya will get less medals in international athletics competition.

Given that we do not invest in the more technical sport disciplines that require much equipment and infrastructure it is likely that the avenues available for the economically better off but now less skinny athlete-to-be will be not to run but to do the power squat. In essence that is the sporting side of what happens when people have made a bit of money-they join gyms because they do not have the time to be healthy all day.

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