Unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles are increasingly putting Kenyans, especially women at risk of overweight and obesity challenges.
Government statistics from the Kenya Stepwise Survey for Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) risk factors show that overall, 27 percent of Kenyans are either overweight or obese.
But the percentage is slightly higher in women (38 percent) than men (17 percent).
Aside from making them vulnerable to such ailments like cancer and cardiovascular diseases, the weight challenges may also pose a threat to women of reproductive age during pregnancy.
According to a new study published in the Paediatric Research Journal, children of overweight or obese mothers are likely to suffer from self-regulation problems.
This means that they may cry excessively, have problems feeding or difficulties falling asleep unless soothed by a caregiver.
As they grow older, such children often show behavioural and neuro-developmental (brain and nerve development) problems such as hyperactivity or difficulties concentrating, as well as having poor muscle function. Some have low intelligence and may suffer from autism.
“Our findings show that regulatory behaviour problems in infancy have prenatal origins that can be attributed at least partially to mothers being overweight or obesity,” said Polina Girchenko, lead author of the study from the University of Helsinki in Finland.
“We suggest that the prevention of weight problems in women of childbearing age may benefit their later offspring. It could reduce the burden of regulatory problems in infancy and prevent long-term neuro-developmental consequences.”
Girchenko noted that there is a one in five chance that overweight or obese women will have babies who suffer from multiple regulatory problems. These children may also show delay in some developmental milestones.
The study involved more than 3,100 Finnish women. Medical data was gathered about the mothers’ weight during the first few months of their pregnancies. The researchers also sought to find out whether they suffered from high blood pressure or gestational diabetes during this period.
Up to three months after delivery, the women then answered questions about their babies’ ability to regulate and calm themselves. Follow-up assessments of the children’s developmental milestones were then conducted over a one- year period.
In general, the participants who were overweight or obese tended to be older mothers and to deliver their babies through a caesarean section. They were less likely to have a tertiary education and tended to stop smoking when they first heard that they were pregnant.
Based on the study results, there was a 22 per cent higher chance that overweight or obese mothers would have children with multiple self-regulatory problems. The research team confirmed that weight was the significant factor, and not whether a mother suffered from high blood pressure or gestational diabetes.
Aside from development challenges, previous studies have shown that obesity increases a woman’s chances of having a complicated pregnancy and delivery, thus putting the baby at risk.
It can cause the unborn child to have more body fat than usual hence increasing the risk of childhood obesity and diabetes. These children are also likely to have birth defects, which can be harder to detect with ultrasound in obese women.
In addition, the condition makes affected women vulnerable to miscarriage, stillbirth, heart problems, sleep disorders, pre-eclampsia (hypertension in pregnancy that can damage body organs), difficult vaginal delivery and the risk of C-section complications such as wound infections.
To forestall the adverse effects of weight challenges during pregnancy, health experts urge all women planning to have a baby to first go for pre-conception screening or medical check-up.
This gives the doctor an opportunity to identify things that need to change — like obesity, hypertension and diabetes — before the woman conceives so that she and her baby can be as healthy as possible. This applies to women who are having their first baby as well as subsequent ones.
Weight gain can also be prevented by maintaining a healthy diet and finding safe ways to stay physically active during pregnancy such as walking, swimming or doing low-impact aerobics.