Rising Childhood Obesity: Mak Researchers Investigate Unhealthy Food and Beverage Advertising to Children

By Joseph Odoi
In Uganda, many children are exposed to aggressive advertisement of unhealthy foods and sugar sweetened non-alcoholic beverages which in turn prepares their mind as future potential clients. Unfortunately, there is little understanding on the extent, nature and impact of children’s exposure to food and non-alcoholic beverage advertising trends in Uganda.
Driven by this worrying trend and increasing non-communicable diseases (NCDs), researchers at Makerere University have embarked on a study to promote regulated unhealthy food and sugar sweetened beverage advertising. 
A research project titled Food and beverage Advertising to Children in Uganda(FACe-U),  with funding from Makerere University Research and Innovations Fund (MakRIF), has been commissioned to understand advertising patterns of unhealthy foods and non-alcoholic beverages towards children below 18 years. This study comes at a time when there’s coinciding increase in overweight and obesity cases among children in Uganda.  The project will also investigate the extent to which content  influences children’s food choices and suggest changes for more responsible food  and beverage advertising. This will contribute towards creating a healthy food environment in Uganda.
According  to Dr. Gloria Seruwagi, the Project lead  and Principal Investigator, young children are gaining more weight early, mostly because of the foods they eat, pushed by advertising.“We are seeing an increase in waist size. Children are becoming more obese and overweight mostly because of the foods that they consume, the lifestyles we are allowing them as parents and caretakers. This brings complications to children which may affect their overall development and academic performance. We need to protect impressionable children and adolescents. Recently the World Health Organisation through the Global RECAP program and engagement of policymakers in Uganda, confirmed that ‘marketing restrictions to children’ is a number one priority issue in Uganda. We need to support global and national effort to strengthen capacity of key actors in promoting healthy diets and increase physical activity for the prevention of NCDs.

Dr. Gloria Seruwagi (R) the study PI and Ms. Florence Tushemereirwe the Co-PI and Public Health Nutritionist  at MakSPH discuss the FACe-U study

Dr. Gloria Seruwagi (R) the study PI and Ms. Florence Tushemereirwe the Co-PI and Public Health Nutritionist at MakSPH discuss the FACe-U study

We hope that our study findings will inform and support policy actions to regulate irresponsible production and advertising; create healthy food environments that prevent childhood obesity; and contribute towards achieving the Uganda Nutrition Action Plan II (2020-2025) and the country’s Strategic Development Goals” she remarked. This study is foundational and shall begin by undertaking a situation analysis. For example; we shall assess how often unhealthy food and beverages adverts feature on TV, the airing period (at what time), how many times, and the persuasive content targeting children and adolescents.” she added. The study will use empirical and media monitoring data to determine trends of magnitude of advertising and types of food and non-alcoholic beverages advertised to children in Uganda.
According to the Study Co-PI Florence Tushemereirwe, this one year  study is a partnership between a team of researchers at Makerere University School of Public Health(MakSPH) and the School of Social Sciences (CHUSS). The project team also includes Maureen Nabatanzi (Research Fellow), Dr. Priscilla Cheptyo (Research Officer), Maria Ssematiko  and Flavia Nakacwa (Project Liason and Administrator respectively).The team has mentors based at MakSPH, APHRC in Nairobi, Sciencano and Institute of Tropical Medicine, in Belgium.
Expected Outcomes of Face-U Project
  1. Increased understanding on the nature and extent of food and non-alcoholic beverages advertising to children. We shall use real time television, radio and newspaper data, including video clips and pictures where appropriate, to generate this outcome.
  2. Categories of food and non-alcoholic beverages advertised to children using the AFRO nutrient profile model. Categorizing the types of food and beverages advertised shows the nature of food advertised to influence children’s food choices and diets.
  3. Analysis and documentation of the persuasive techniques used to promote food and sweetened beverages to children and children’s preferred media channels. Food and non-alcoholic beverages advertisers use content to persuade children and capture innocent children’s minds early in life to prepare them as future clients for their products. This outcome will directly contribute towards food and beverage regulation – specifically on marketing to children in Uganda.

In her remarks, Florence Basiimwa Tushemerirwe, a public health nutritionist and Co-Principal Investigator of the project  said the study will be implemented in Mbale, Kabale, Kampala and the surrounding areas. Ms. Tushemerirwe  said that the team chose study sites like Kabale owing to the fact that it’s  a meeting place for more than 3 countries; e.g. Uganda , Rwanda, Burundi and DRC Congo. Mbale district receives products from South Sudan and Kenya. The Kampala Metropolitan area represents urban settings with higher exposure to advertising among children, partly due to TV access and billboard adverts among others.

Florence Tushemereirwe, the Study Co-PI from Makerere University School of Public Health emphasises a point.

Dr. Cheputyo Priscilla,  a member  of  the research team, gave insight into how Uganda is currently undergoing a nutrition transition with many children becoming overweight and obese, according to national data.Obesity is caused by many factors but the most common is consumption of foods that are high in calories. “We get most of the calories from sweet sugars, added to processed foods like sodas, yogurts and baked products in the supermarkets; we get calories from fatty foods like chips, fried foods like chicken, chaps, rolex, and more from fast food restaurants,” she explained.Florence Tushemereirwe, the Study Co-PI from Makerere University School of Public Health makes a point

National Obesity Statistics
In 2016, Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (UDHS) found: 4% of children under five years, and 16% of adolescent girls were obese, a rise from 2.4% of boys and 2.1% of girls in 2014. Therefore, it is the right time for Uganda to nip these health conditions in the bud.
More information on the FACe-U study, including updates, stakeholder engagement and research outputs can be found here