The middle class boom in many African cities has inevitably resulted in several life style changes but one is proving particularly dangerous.
A rise in supermarket shopping—an offshoot of rapid urbanization—has resulted in locals eating higher amounts of processed food than fresh food typically found at traditional markets. But it’s a habit that could prove costly on the long-term, a new study in collaboration with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) shows. The study analyzes diet choices and nutrition in urban Kenya and finds that shopping in supermarkets “significantly increases” body mass index (BMI) and a higher consumption of processed and highly processed foods. Across the continent, the rise of fast food chains is having a similar effect on increasing overweight and obesity levels.
The study collected data in 2012 and 2015 across several households in three towns in central Kenya where the share of grocery sales through supermarkets is about 10% nationally.
The change in diet choices and nutrition as an impact of shopping at supermarkets, a trend that’s already occurred in developed countries, is referred to as “nutrition transition” and the severity of the problem depends on the types of food offered in supermarkets. Generally, increases in BMI contribute to non-communicable diseases like diabetes and hypertension among locals.
Even though supermarket shopping was not found to result in a rise in calorie consumption, it resulted in “significant shifts in dietary composition,” the study showed. For locals, energy consumption from unprocessed staples as well as fresh fruits and vegetables reduced and were replaced by dairy, processed meat, snacks and soft drinks—foods that likely contain higher sugar, fat and salt levels and lower micro-nutrients. These diet changes, the study says, explains increases in BMI without an increase in amount of calories consumed as the body requires less energy to digest processed and highly processed foods. These effects will increase with “supermarkets gaining further importance,” it adds.
While supermarkets cannot solely be blamed for the rise in obesity in developing countries, the study says they ”influence dietary habits to a significant extent.” But that influence can be engineered for good: the study recommends food policies that push for making fresh healthy foods more options at supermarkets.