Why Kenyans are struggling to tame their waistlines

Unhealthy diets, hormonal imbalance and increasingly sedentary lives have left more than 15 per cent of Kenyans suffering from obesity, while many are overweight

In Summary

• Overweight and obesity are perceived in Africa as evidence of affluence but globally recognised as Non-Communicable Diseases

• Most Kenyans are not eating enough vegetables, whole grains and healthy food 

A man's waistline is measured
A man's waistline is measured

Despite a high percentage of Kenyans living below the poverty line, data has shown that seven out of 100 adults are either overweight or obese.

In addition, Kenya has been ranked 23rd among 47 countries where a growing number of children under five are overweight.

Affluence and good life are what came into the mind of Maxwell Kinyua when his sister’s weight rapidly increased, yet she was suffering from hormonal imbalance.


“I thought my sister was living large with a lot of money, yet she was ill. On visiting a specialist, we realised she was growing big unintentionally since her food intake was correct, and she also exercised regularly,” Kinyua said.

Kinyua’s sister was diagnosed with a condition, hypothyroidism, where her thyroid could not provide enough energy to her digestive system, hence her digestion process slowed down.

Over time, she experienced regular fatigue and rapid weight gain that had nothing to do with the commonly blamed wrong food intake. She was unwell.

However, according to the Africa Nutrition Report, no income group in Africa is eating enough vegetables, whole grains and what is considered healthy food. Instead, they are all taking too much soda.


For John Muthama, years of dieting and exercising brought no change to his alarming weight of 176kg. It's not until he underwent the maiden bariatric weight loss surgery at the Kenyatta National Hospital in May that he registered success.

At 66 years, his Body Mass Index was at 59.5kg per meter squared. He was diagnosed with class III obesity and at this point, his only way out was the surgery, as all other procedures had failed. BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight with his or her squared height in metres. 


The five-specialist procedure required the father of three to part with Sh500,000 to facilitate his weight loss journey.

Speaking to the Star, his wife Agnes Waithaka said she thought her husband was gaining weight because of her exemplary culinary skills.

“When my husband started gaining weight, I thought it was because of my food and people would praise me for the good work. But when he could not walk, I sensed danger,” Mrs Waithaka said.

"It got worse until the day he developed hypertension and was losing breath. That is when I knew we had to rush him to hospital.”

Muthama’s weight had been gradually increasing for 10 years, with his efforts to find a solution proving futile. His walking problem meant they had to seek a helper to walk him around every day.

Referring to the successful surgery, surgeon Kennedy Odede of Kenyatta National Hospital, who was part of Muthama’s procedure, said many Kenyans have sizes they can hardly control.

Referring to overweight and obesity as non-communicable diseases, he added that more than 15 per cent of Kenyans are currently suffering from obesity.


Weight gain is predominantly as a result of excess caloric intake — the amount of calories ingested does not balance with physical activities. However, long-term use of steroids and people with hypothyroidism may have hormonal imbalances, posing a risk of unintentional weight gain.


Janet Moraa was already weighing 70kg at the age of 10. Unlike her peers, her weight was high and she could not play for long.

“Playing became uncomfortable for me as I could not play for more than 20 minutes without sweating profusely or getting chest pains. My weight was so much,” she said.

Moraa was always bigger than her peers from as far as when she was five years old. She now attributes it to unhealthy food intake.

“My mother was also big in size and she became my mentor. I always saw her take large portions of food and I took after her. Coming from a rich family, we took more of fast foods than organic ones,” she said.

While in secondary school in Western Kenya, Moraa decided to cut down on junk and exercise more to boost her self-esteem.

“That was my turning point. Much as it was hectic at first, at the moment, I am no longer overweight. It is a matter of the past,” she said.

Diana Lynn, 30, realised her weight was going overboard when she delivered her daughter Annabelle, now aged five.

“I could not deliver normally as the baby was quite big, and I know it is because of the foods I was taking when expectant. That is when my weight became a concern,” Lynn says.

In her family, all the members are either overweight or obese, and she has attributed the state to lack of temperance and overeating.

“When I was young, we were very poor and we could not afford two meals a day. My mother later landed a big job and promised that we would eat to compensate for the days we could not afford the meals,” she said, tears swelling in her eyes.

The days that followed all turned into feasts as they devoured five-course meals filled with meat and soft drinks.

Life changed and the five family members started adding weight. Lynn says physical exercises were unheard of in the family, so it was all about eating and relaxing.

“My late mother had a lot of health complications prior to her death, and I have a strong belief that it was because of our unhealthy lifestyle then,” she said.


It is, however, different for Mary Mwangi, 105kg, who has linked her overweight status to stress eating and packaged food.

“I fell into depression and began eating recklessly, especially packaged food, something I regret at the moment. My husband passed away two years ago and his demise was eating me up,” she says.

Mwangi had not noticed the steady increase in her weight since she cared more about settling bills and thinking about the deceased.

At the beginning of the year, she was 120kg, and that is when she realised her weight had ballooned and her blood pressure was now high. Through active exercising and change of diet, she has managed to shed 15kg and counting.

“I realised where my mistake was and I am positive that by the end of this year, I will have shed more kilos. Patience and consistency is the key to my weight loss success,” she says.

In addition, her new routine has given her happiness and she is now more productive, as noted by her friends.

Nutritionist Dorcas Gichuhi says the so-called modern way of life for both the affluent and middle-class groups has become more sedentary.

“Weight gain is predominantly as a result of excess caloric intake — the amount of calories ingested does not balance with physical activities. However, long-term use of steroids and people with hypothyroidism may have hormonal imbalances, posing a risk of unintentional weight gain,” Gichuhi said.

Edited by Tom Jalio