Shopping in supermarkets significantly increases body mass index and contributes to higher consumption of processed foods at the expense of unprocessed foods, a study on Kenya by a U.S. based institute has found.

Even though Kenya faces problems of undernutrition and child stunting, rates of adult overweight and obesity are high, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) said in a report.

"Overweight and obesity are growing health problems in many developing countries," said Olivier Ecker, co-author of the study and a senior research fellow at the IFPRI.

"These results, alarming from a nutrition and health perspective, confirm that the retail environment affects people’s food choices and nutrition, and the growth of supermarkets contributes to the nutrition transition in Africa."

Kenya has one of the most prospering supermarket sectors in sub-Saharan Africa. The share of grocery sales through supermarkets is about 10 percent  at national level, but already much higher in large urban centers.

IFPRI research found that shopping food in supermarkets increased adult BMI by 0.64 kg per square metre, and that this rapid rise strongly contributed to non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and some forms of cancer.

The study utilised data collected in urban Kenya in 2012 and 2015 to analyze the effects of supermarket shopping on adult BMI and dietary composition. 

The results showed that supermarket shopping contributed to a sizeable decrease in energy consumption from unprocessed staples and from fresh fruits and vegetables, and a significant increase in energy consumption from dairy, vegetable oil, processed meat products such as sausages and highly processed foods such as bread, pasta, snacks and soft drinks.

"Some of the effects are still relatively small in magnitude, but they may increase with supermarkets further gaining in importance,"  Ecker said.

"The observed changes in dietary composition can also explain the increasing effect on BMI, even without a rise in total calorie consumption. The reason is that the human body requires less energy for the digestion of processed and highly processed foods."

 A rapid growth of supermarkets is also expected in other parts of Africa. Modernizing food retail environments, together with income growth and urbanization, may also play a certain role in rising obesity rates because of changes in people’s diets and lifestyles.

The research provides regulatory and policy recommendations to avoid undesirable diet and nutrition outcomes, including enhancing consumer awareness.

“Rather than thwarting modernization in the retail sector, policies that incentivize the sale of more healthy foods - such as fruits and vegetables - in supermarkets may be more promising to promote desirable nutritional outcomes," said Ecker.

- African News Agency (ANA)