Obesity Among Kenyan and Canadian Children-By Dr Stella Muthuri


Dr. Stella Muthuri recently earned a PhD in Population Health for her work as a graduate researcher at the STELLAChildren’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), and research project manager at Kenyatta University.

Her research was aimed at investigating the prevalence of, and factors associated with physical activity and overweight/obesity among school aged children in Kenya and Canada. This research involved examining the influence of social determinants of health such as school environments, neighbourhoods, and home environments, and their effects on youth in relation to physical activity and overweight/obesity.

Stella’s previous work included working with the Canadian Lung Association where she was a clinical practice guidelines coordinator and a Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) surveillance project manager at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.

Ms. Muthuri earned her Bachelor and Master degrees in Biochemistry at Concordia University in Montreal.

Please introduce yourself to TAP SPEAKS.

My name is Stella Muthuri, and I have most recently been working as a graduate researcher with the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa (CHEO). I was also a project manager at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, where my thesis research project was conducted. In May of this year (2014), I earned my PhD in Population Health from the University of Ottawa.

Congratulations on your achievements. It must not have been easy, could you please tell us about your educational background and career journey?

I attended Moi Girls’ High School in Nairobi, Kenya, and thereafter travelled for further studies to Canada where I earned my Bachelor and Master degrees in Biochemistry at Concordia University in Montreal. I was then hired as a research coordinator by the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. I’ve also worked as a guidelines coordinator at the Canadian Lung Association before my most recent position as researcher and project manager at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) and Kenyatta University.

Tell us what drew you to this career path? What was interesting to you about the work and the journey?

The prospect of helping improve quality of life through research and intervention has been the main source of my motivation in selecting to work in this field. I also always wanted to return to Kenya and pursue a research career which would allow me to make the most of my education, work experience, interest and drive, in working with others to improve the health situation here.

As a young African woman studying and living in the diaspora, could you please tell us of some of the challenges that you faced in your journey? What were your motivating factors, how did you keep going?

One of the biggest personal challenges I faced earlier on was speaking up and speaking out. Our culture at home tends to be one that requires the young, and particularly girls, to be less vocal. I was quite apprehensive about approaching my lectures and others senior to me. I soon realised that in order to get the most out of my interaction with them, I would have to learn to voice out my concerns, questions, or comments. This also helped me learn to stand up in front of a large audience and present my research findings.

In addition to personal challenges did you face any academic or professional challenges? What is your opinion on African women and their representation both in Kenya and in Canada at this tier of academic achievement?

I have seen African women increasingly participating and seeking higher academic achievement in both Kenya and Canada, which is quite encouraging. I would say that the one challenge faced by many women is funding/financial support to carry out their studies. This was an area that I struggled with. More needs to be done to specifically support women in pursing higher education.

I know that you did your PhD research in Kenya, how did that all happen? Were there any challenges related to that specifically in terms of business conduct and professionalism that you had to adjust yourself to?

Data collection in Nairobi was conducted as part of a larger study titled the “International Study on Childhood Obesity, Lifestyle, and the Environment”, a large multinational study seeking to investigate the influence of behavior settings, physical, social, and policy environments on the observed relationship between lifestyle characteristics, obesity and weight gain in children from countries in five major regions of the world.

I was fortunate to have been introduced to the project by my thesis supervisor, who encouraged me to work with the team at Kenyatta University in developing the survey materials and thereafter data collection, analyses, and writing. This opportunity afforded me an invaluable chance to familiarize myself with the research environment in Kenya; hence, gain further international experience. Adjusting to the environment in Kenya was an easy one for me, with no particular challenges that stood out.

In regards to your most recent project what were you working on?

I was managing a team that was conducting research on the prevalence and correlates of overweight/obesity, physical activity and sedentary behavior among school aged children in Kenya. The purpose of this research was to investigate the prevalence of and factors associated with physical activity and overweight/obesity in this sample of children. We also examined the influence of social determinants of health such as school environment and neighborhoods on child and youth involvement in physical activity.

This sounds like relevant and important information, could you please tell us about some of your key findings?

  1. —We found that more children that were overweight or obese came from households that had parents with higher levels of education. We also found that lower numbers of children from homes with parents having higher levels of education were meeting the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended daily minutes of physical activity for children. (In Kenya)
  2. Children attending a private school were 4 times more likely to be overweight or obese compared to children attending a public school in Kenya.
  3. Children attending a private school were 96% less likely to meet the WHO recommended guidelines for physical activity than children attending a public school. (In Kenya)
  4. In Kenya, children with mothers who had diplomas/degrees (more educated) were 75% less likely to meet the WHO recommended guidelines for physical activity than children with mother(s) who had a primary or lower education level (less educated).
  5. These findings were similar to those found in the larger Sub-Saharan Africa showing that a higher socioeconomic status was associated with obesity measures and that children from higher socioeconomic status were found to engage in lower levels of physical activity, higher sedentary behaviour, and performed worse on aerobic fitness measures compared to lower socioeconomic status children.
  6. Also of interest is that on the contrary, in countries like Australia, Canada and the USA (higher income countries), children who are from lower socioeconomic status are found to have lower physical activity and higher levels of obesity. A complete opposite.

That’s incredibly interesting. So basically poorer children in Sub Saharan Africa were found to be more physically fit and active, while poor children from Canada and similar countries were found to be more overweight and less physically active. Also African children from richer families were found to be overweight while rich North American children were found to be more physically fit!

In your opinion what is the need and relevancy of this information to the public? What connections should people be making? What is the overall pressing health threat to Kenyan Children?

Essentially, the main findings point towards a growing number of children that are overweight or obese, and that participate in inadequate levels of physical activity in the Kenyan and broader Sub Saharan Africa context. This is particularly true for higher socioeconomic and urban living children. Public efforts must therefore focus on this vulnerable population in order to prevent downstream increases in the occurrence of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs).

What advice would you like to share with our readers who may want to pursue a similar journey into health and research?

Go for it!! It has been an exciting and rewarding choice.

What are your hopes for the future?

To engage even more in the African research environment, and participate in capacity building efforts here.

Thank you very much Dr. Stella Muthuri for your time, you are a wonderful inspiration and it was a pleasure engaging with you. We look forward to more of the same in the future.

For more on Stella's past work including a report on "Kenya's 2014 Report Card on Physical and Body Weight of Children and Youth" among many more, visit her Linkedin page Here.

By Yvonne Nyawira

TAP SPEAKS is built on the belief that "If you want to know you’re progressing both as an individual/community, you should be able to look up and there's someone pulling you and you should be able to look down and you’re pulling someone up".