Do supermarkets make people fat?

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Nr. 83/2015 - 15.04.2015

Göttingen researchers analyse food consumption and body weight in Kenya

(pug) Worldwide, people are getting fatter. This is also true in developing countries, where overnutrition coexists with undernutrition. Overweight and obesity contribute to chronic health issues such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and some forms of cancer. In many developing countries, rates of overweight have increased rapidly, especially in urban areas. This is primarily due to higher consumption of fat and sugar, as well as lower physical exercise during work and leisure. The structure of the food retail sector is also changing – shifting away from traditional outlets towards modern supermarkets. Given the speed of developments, this shift in food retailing is sometimes referred to as a “supermarket revolution”.

Is this “supermarket revolution” only a symptom of the new lifestyles in developing countries, or is the spread of supermarkets causing changes in people’s diets and weights? This question was recently analysed by a team of researchers from the University of Göttingen. The researchers collected data from over 450 households in different towns in Kenya with and without supermarkets. In addition to detailed information about food consumption, the height and weight of household members were measured.

The study results confirm that supermarkets contribute to changes in food consumption patterns. People purchasing in supermarkets eat more processed foods and have higher calorie intakes; they are 13 percent more likely to be overweight or obese than people who purchase their food in traditional outlets. However, this effect only holds for adults. For children and adolescents, purchasing in supermarkets does not contribute to overweight but significantly reduces undernutrition. Other influencing factors – such as income and education – were controlled for in the statistical analysis.

The researchers also looked at possible reasons for the observed effects. One important reason is that the average price of food – expressed per calorie – is cheaper in supermarkets. Dr. Simon Kimenju and Dr. Ramona Rischke, two of the study authors, conclude that supermarkets have important nutritional effects that can be negative or positive, depending on age groups and people’s initial nutritional status. The results were recently published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

Original publication: Simon C. Kimenju et al. Do supermarkets contribute to the obesity pandemic in developing countries? Public Health Nutrition 2015. Doi: 10.1017/S1368980015000919.

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