Obesity in Nigeria amidst the COVID-19 lockdown

Jun 02, 2020|Daniel Whyte

It’s no surprise that people have been interested in weight-loss tactics in recent times. 

In Nigeria, Google searches for the phrases “fastest way to lose weight” and “how to burn belly fat” have increased by more than 60% since stay-at-home measures were announced in April. 

The trend makes sense given that movements and physical activities have been reduced to curb the COVID-19 outbreak. Google's community mobility report showed that between April 1st and May 13th visits to all places except residential areas dropped in Nigeria.

The frequency of people going to retail and recreation centres as well as workplace visits decreased by around 35%. Movement in residential areas were up 21%. 

Considering that weight gain is generally caused by the combination of eating and a lack of exercise, one can see how the pandemic might increase obesity. 


Food consumption patterns

The consumption expenditure report recently released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) gives us a look into food consumption in Nigeria. 

The conclusion is that we love food. 

More so, we prefer to eat out. From the ₦22.8 trillion spent on food in 2019, ₦4.6 trillion was on eating out. This accounts for the highest share in both food (20%) and total (11%) expenditure in the year. 

The UK's National Health Service (NHS) lists eating out as one of the risk factors for obesity. According to the NHS, such food can be higher in fat and sugar. 

Arguably, the pandemic will reduce eating out in states where there are lockdowns. However, even the food eaten at home poses a risk. Top among the food items on the spending list of Nigerian households were starchy roots, tubers and plantains. Rice was in second place. 

This, combined with money spent on meat, baked and processed products, sugar and sugar-related products, alcohol and eating out, makes up around 53% of the total money spent on food in 2019.


The vulnerable state of obesity in Nigeria

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the share of overweight and obese Nigerian adults has already been rising. 

As of 2016, 26% of Nigerian adults were either obese or overweight.

The 2018 Nigerian Demographic and Health survey also found that a third of Nigerian women were overweight. According to the survey, wealthy women (46%) are more prone to obesity than poor women (9%). Educated women (49%) were also more likely to be overweight than uneducated women (16%).

Nigeria, and indeed many countries globally already have a problem with obesity. And now, the World Obesity Federation has said that the pandemic risks worsening the issue.  

“Enforced physical inactivity even if it is for short periods of time increases the risk of metabolic disease,” the federation explained.

It added that “the current crisis and the need for self-isolation are prompting many to rely on processed food with longer shelf life (instead of fresh produce) and canned food (with higher quantities of sodium) and we might see an increase in weight if this persists for a longer period of time.”


A will must find a way

Obesity is one of the leading risk factors for early death and can lead to several life-threatening health challenges; some of which have been found to worsen COVID-19 complications. 

According to the World Obesity Federation, people with a body mass index (BMI) above 25 are more likely to contract the disease. 

Like many other Nigerians, Folake Olaniyan, a student of Federal University Oye-Ekiti, said her weight has increased because she eats more than three times a day, but only exercises when she is "in the mood." 

“Since I am not doing anything, there is nothing to distract my mind from food. Sometimes, I eat four, five times a day, that's not including snacks,” Ngozika Ogbonnaya who works in Enugu also said.

She added that she tries to exercise but laments distractions from kids and television. “It takes discipline to be able to work out at home right now,” she added.

Oluseye Onabanjo, an Associate Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics, agrees that an increase in obesity rates is likely.  

He explained that a sedentary lifestyle induced by COVID-19 and a resultant high intake of food, particularly energy-dense ones, can lead to more overweight cases.

He, however, encouraged that people should exercise more as well as practice healthy eating patterns such as eating more fruits and vegetables. 

According to him, when people eat more fruits and vegetables, it will give them a lot of micronutrients and antioxidants that help to boost immune functions which is helpful in the fight against COVID-19. He also urged people to seek information about nutritional benefits and health risks of food items to make informed choices about what they eat.

This might be what Nigerians are already searching for on Google. While the search trends discussed previously can't tell us if obesity rates will increase in Nigeria, it provides insights into citizens' awareness of weight gain and how to curb it.


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