Obesity. What is the first image that comes to mind when you read or hear that word? Does the picture reflect the psychological, biological and physiological implications behind it? Probably not. Does it carry the thoughts, emotions and experiences of a person suffering from it? Probably not. Then what does the image conjure up? For most of us the word 'obesity' only implies superficial physical characteristics.

As a society we often underestimate the pain and suffering of individuals whom we perceive to be different. However, these individuals share the same experiences we do — sadness, stress and anxiety — they just channel them differently. For some it's not even an issue of channelling these life's challenges, it's a gene, a biological factor over which they have absolutely no control. Whether it lies at the root of emotion, psychology or biology, obesity is an epidemic slowly sweeping the population. The young who are inclined towards quick fixes, immediate gratification and a fast food culture are the most vulnerable.

Defining obesity

What is obesity? According to Muna Al Tum, student counsellor at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), obesity is an "increase of body weight due to the excessive accumulation of body fat." It is a condition or disease in which the "natural energy reserve, which is stored in fat tissue, is expanded far beyond usual levels to the point where it impairs health."

Al Tum also differentiates between being obese and being overweight.

"Being overweight refers to having an excess of body weight compared to set standards. This excess weight may come from muscle, bone, or fat," she said. "A person can be overweight without being obese. Take, for example, athletes who have a lot of muscle."

Obesity continues to be a prominent issue not only in the US, but also in recent years in the Middle East.

"The percentage of overweight and obese students in the UAE is on the rise," said Rula Ziadeh, dietician at AUS. "And the rate of overweight students is growing in epidemic proportions."

Causes for obesity

One of the most obvious factors that plays a significant role in obesity is eating habits. We all go for that extra chocolate bar when we're feeling down, finish a whole bag of popcorn and chips and drown it with a Coke while watching a movie, but where do we draw the line?

According to Ziadeh, two meals of junk food a week are considered too much.

"Consuming two meals a week will trigger weight gain," she said. "Having more than one fast food meal every ten days will alter your weight."

Among students, many admit to having an average of three junk food meals a day. Most say this is due to a lack of time and money.

"When you're looking for something to quickly fill your stomach on a day where you are swamped with studies, it's so easy to just stop by Burger King or KFC," said Rusol Tamimi, AUS student.

Chocolate, a sinful pleasure for many, is another dangerous contributor to obesity.

"Chocolate is a high-calorie food and its regular consumption can lead to weight gain," Ziadeh said. Munching on one chocolate a day will result in an additional ten kilograms a year."

Psychological implications

Other major factors, however, also play an important role in obesity. One of them is the psychological condition of the individual.

"Many people eat in response to negative emotions such as boredom, sadness or anger," Al Tum said. "There's no doubt that certain people tend to turn to food for escapism when faced with stressful circumstances."

For some, sadness or anxiety trigger a loss of appetite; for others, they trigger emotional or stress eating.

For Salma Nour, visual communications student at the American University in Dubai, it's the latter.

"When I'm feeling down and depressed, suddenly that chocolate bar or bag of chips seems very comforting," she said.

Referred to as external dependency, Al Tum explained that a person turns to food for solace, escape or satisfaction.

"The most important point here is that you don't eat because you are hungry," she said. "You're just using food as an excuse for something else."

A vicious cycle

Experts said that a harmful relationship often exists between obesity and self-confidence.

"Feelings of low self esteem can trigger over-eating and that can exacerbate obesity," Al Tum said. "The reverse is also true — obesity can trigger feelings of low self esteem."

Al Tum also described the downward spiral adolescents fall into when faced with obesity.

"A small portion of obese people try to lose weight unhealthily by either purging or not eating at all," she said. "Both are characteristics of the eating disorders bulimia and anorexia nervosa. They begin to lose control and sink deeper into depression."

Sidra Shahid, international relations student at AUS, explained the meaning and importance of body image in society, especially among females.

"It's not that these people don't care about the way they look," she said. "It's that they are stuck in a cycle where they need the motivation and support to step out outside themselves and say 'Wait a minute, I can do this. There is a solution.' All they need is will power."

It's in the genes

Obesity, however, is not only caused by external factors or bad eating habits. It can also be the result of simple genetics.

"In one out of ten obese individuals a gene is responsible for obesity," Ziadeh said. "According to Professor Philippe Froguel from Imperial College London, the gene GAD2 stimulates overeating. Nevertheless, he emphasised that a combination of genes and behaviour is a reason for someone to become overweight."

Al Tum revealed some shocking statistics on the issue.

"If we ask do obese parents usually produce obese children? Statistics say yes," she said. "Lean parents have only a seven per cent chance of having an obese adolescent. If one parent is obese, there is a 40 per cent chance their child will be obese. If both parent's are obese, the probability of the child's being obese may be as high as 80 per cent."

The consequences

Obesity, though considered an ailment in its own right, can lead to other serious illnesses. People suffering from obesity may develop severe health problems, with psychological and emotional implications.

"People undergo intense social pressure and stress to fit the image of a perfect body," Al Tum said. "When they try to live up to these standards and do not succeed, they face emotional distress and usually eat even more."

Obesity can also lead to other life threatening illnesses like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Social Responsibility

Experts stress the role society has to play. Educational institutes, the government and the health community all have the capacity to make a real difference to the lifestyles of students. The key to prevention, however, is awareness.

"Health education and nutrition awareness should be provided at all schools at different levels," said Ziadeh. "Governments will surely make a difference if they mandated one hour of exercise everyday in all educational institutions."

Another factor would be monitoring food intake on campuses. The temptation to consume unhealthy food could be reduced if schools and universities eradicated them from their campuses.

"School districts should re-evaluate food contracts with drink and snack industries," Al Tum said. "If these companies cannot provide students with foods that will benefit their health, they should not be sold in schools."

Yet another important role society can play is to build an environment in which it is easy for students to engage in sport. This would encourage physical activity.

"Special bike lanes should be designed for students to get to school instead of a car or school bus," Al Tum said. "Funding should be provided that will support community after school and outreach programmes."

The health community also has a vital role in taking precautionary measures against obesity. They can establish programmes that guide parents on how to provide balanced diets for their family members.

"Yes it is true that individuals are responsible for their own behaviour and actions," said Shahid. "However, we are not living in a bubble. As part of a community we are also responsible for other members of society. We should try our best to make it easier for people to follow a happy and healthy life. Otherwise, without consideration for one another, we are only leading ourselves to our demise."

Healthy lifestyle

  • Have an appropriate breakfast every morning — skipping breakfast will only result in a higher calorie intake at the end of the day leading to weight gain.
  • Increase your activity and work out — whether it's walking, swimming, riding a bike, or playing football — physical activity leads to a healthier life.
  • Have healthy meals and snacks — eat fruits and vegetables as snacks instead of chocolate and chips.
  • Eat your food cooked or grilled, not fried.
    — Information provided by Rula Ziadeh, dietician at the AUS

Channelling emotional complications

  • Develop your own attitudes and behaviour towards eating and weight — individuals of obese parents are more likely to be obese than their peers. Daughters of mothers who diet are more likely to diet. Attitudes should be individualised.
  • Eat dinner together as a family most days of the week.
  • Counteract harmful media messages about body image. Realise that advertising uses thin models to market products. Pictures and other images in the media are altered to reflect a more 'perfect' body.
  • Do not be afraid to seek help. Visit your counsellor to practice some cognitive and behaviour modification therapies or your nutritionist to improve your eating habits.
    — Information provided by Muna Al Tum, student counsellor at AUS

Have your say
Is obesity increasing among the youth and why?
Do you often eat healthy food or go for fast food?Do you know of any successful weight loss story? Write to us and tell us your opinions on education@gulfnews.com

Does media impact body image?

"Of course it does. One's body image is natural but media makes it fake."
—Rani Fazah, business, EHSAL

"Yes, people look at you and compare you with the models on the posters, and so it makes you conscious about how you look."
— Matias Iglesias, BBA, EHSAL

"Media makes everyone highly conscious of their body image and it usually leaves a negative impact."
— Ebrahim Abdul Khader, BBA, EHSAL

"Sort of. People tend to copy the celebrities and look like them."
— Danial Munsoor, BBA, University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD)

"Looking at all the plastic surgery, the fixed noses, bodies etc… makes you feel there's something wrong with your body. You feel others are 'barbie perfect.'"
— Mohammad Ebrahim, marketing in management, UOWD

"Yes, people try to copy the actors and famous people, but I don't!"
— Mohammad Qasim, marketing in management, UOWD

"Not very often because it's not healthy. I prefer eating home-made meals any day."
— Karan Batth, B-COM, Mahatma Gandhi University (MGU)

"Regularly because it's all around. There are many more options to choose from which makes it convenient."
— Ophelia Albuquerque, BBA, MGU

"Most of the time. It's easily available, freshly prepared (although not healthy) and portable!"
— Jawad Alcapri, B-COM, MGU

"Maybe twice a month. I like eating at home."
— Nitin Gupta, BBA, MGU

"I rarely have junk food. I love mom's cooking; it's healthy and fresh!"
— Mohammad Arif, B-COM, MGU

"Almost everyday! Right now I don't worry about my health, maybe I'll worry about it later."
— Rameez Shaikh, BBA, MGU

— Compiled by Manal Ismail