• It would be wrong to attribute the obesity pandemic in developing countries to the expansion of supermarkets alone
• However, supermarkets are not only a symptom of this transition, but they influence dietary habits to a significant extent
A recent study has linked the rise in the number of supermarkets in Kenya to increased unhealthy eating habits that cause overweight conditions, including obesity.
In the last 10 years, obesity and overweight have become more than an urban man’s problem. It has become a rural dweller’s concern as well, as supermarkets have significantly cropped up everywhere in the last decade as the retail sector thrives.
The joint study by German-based University of Gottingen and the International Food Policy Research Institute indicates that there is a “strong” link between modernising of the retail sector and bad nutritional outcomes, such as obesity.
Conducted in the Central Kenya towns, the study was titled 'Supermarket shopping and nutritional outcomes: A panel data analysis for Urban Kenya'.
It suggests that shopping for food in supermarkets raised adult Body Mass Index by 0.64kg/m2. Normal and healthy body weight should have a BMI range of 18.5 to 24.9. A BMI of 25 is considered overweight, but less than 18.5 is underweight.
Much as the Gottingen and IFRI report has not linked supermarkets to higher calorie consumption, it notes significant shifts in dietary consumption. The supermarket outlets contribute to a sizable decrease in consumption of energy-giving foods in the form of unprocessed staples, fresh fruits and vegetables.
The study also links supermarket shopping to a significant increase in dairy, vegetable oil, processed meat products such as sausages, and highly processed food such as bread, pasta, snacks and soft drinks.
It makes it clear that the shift towards highly processed foods leads to less healthy diets with higher sugar, fat and salt contents, and probably lower amounts of micronutrients and dietary fibres.
“These results are alarming from a nutrition and health perspective,” Kathrin Demmler, the report’s lead researcher, said.
“Even though we failed to establish a clear effect of supermarket shopping on the likelihood of being overweight or obese, rising BMI will inevitably aggravate nutrition status in situations where many people are already near or above the BMI threshold of 25kg/m2, as is the case for adults in Central Kenya,” he added.
On the flip side, the report cautions that modernisation of the retail sector should not be condemned “because if properly managed, it can also have important positive nutrition effects”.
Demmler warns that it would be wrong to attribute the obesity pandemic in developing countries to the expansion of supermarkets alone.
“There are many factors that contribute to the nutrition transition. However, the report suggests that supermarkets are not only a symptom of this transition, but they influence dietary habits to a significant extent,” Demmler said.
The study also suggests that supermarkets generally offer fresh foods that are otherwise more difficult to access, especially for the lower-income consumers living in the ‘food desert’ neighbourhoods.
The growth of supermarkets in Kenya and Africa will likely continue, the study concludes. “Hence, from a food policy perspective, it is important to understand the diet and nutrition implications and intervene where necessary to avoid undesirable outcomes. Intervening does not imply banning supermarkets.”
It, therefore, calls for “a given type of regulations” and economic incentives to encourage supermarkets that shy away from fresh fruits and vegetables because of low profit margins.