Matter of fat: These are random pictures of overweight people taken in Dubai in the past week. Blame it on lifts, escalators, cars, valet parking, home-deliveries, long hours spent at work, in front of TV screens and computers, stress, fad diets, or lifestyle changes, the fact remains that the obesity time-bomb is ticking dangerously and could explode one day Image Credit: XPRESS/Francois Nel

Dubai: Why do we gain so much weight when we come to Dubai?

It’s a question bugging many expats, even those who don’t overeat. Some say “there’s something in the water here”, while others blame the hot climate which “makes you lazy”.

Health experts, however, will tell you the answer is not so simple. Some reasons are personal, they say, while others stem from widespread lifestyle changes encountered by expats settling down in Dubai.

In fact, some causes ironically rest in dieting fads that eventually backfire, dieticians said, while others are seemingly as mundane as a home delivery call to your corner grocery – instead of walking it.

As residents grapple with bulging waistlines, the UAE has now been ranked as the world’s fifth heaviest country in a new report.

On average, every adult here consumes more than 3,000 kilocalories a day — about 500 more than the world average. The findings were revealed in the UK-based journal BMC Public Health in June.

Expat factor

A dietician said expats — who account for roughly 80 per cent of the UAE population – typically start gaining weight after a “break point” in their lives, which is usually when they arrive here. And that often means a “total lifestyle change,” said Emilie Hartmann, a dietician at EHL Dubai Mall Medical Centre.

“First of all, people simply walk much less on a daily basis than back in their home country. Secondly, most of my patients have very stressful jobs, with prolonged working hours. They will inevitably change their eating schedules and habits, no longer taking time to cook or even have a normal lunch break during their busy day; which brings them to consume the majority of their calories late at night, when their needs are actually much lower,” she said.

“Also, people rarely resume exercise after settling in the UAE; their job’s the number one priority and takes all the time at the expense of their health.

“We nowadays live in an environment where everything’s done to get you to exercise as little as possible — lifts, escalators, cars, valet parking, home-deliveries, long hours spent at work, in front of TV screens and computers.

“[And an environment] to make you eat more than needed – cheap, fast and calorie-dense foods available everywhere at any time, ready-made meals, tempting ads and smells all over the city.

“We work more hours now than ever before and the main leisure activity is to roam the malls and eat. We use food for comfort, to celebrate, but also to cope with stress, depression, lack of sleep, anxiety… Then the fact that eating out’s a big part of social life here counts as well.”

Still, a lot of overweight residents are “shocked” to find out they are obese in medical check-ups.

“Many patients who are classified as obese based on their BMI — Body Mass Index above 30 — are often shocked… they think they’re ‘just a bit fat’,” Hartmann said.

Then desperate to shed pounds, some turn to extreme diets, which can ironically make them even heavier than they were before dieting, she added.

“In terms of worst diets, the currently very popular Dukan diet is identical to all other fad diets that have been popular at their time: causing a rapid loss of water and muscle mass through very restrictive and unbalanced food choices, but inevitably leading to weight gain once people go back to more normal eating patterns. So dieting’s also a leading cause of obesity.”

For some of us, it’s simply down to our parents – with heredity tendencies making some expats more prone to gain weight. Hartmann said residents of South Asian, Middle Eastern and African origins are at greater risk of developing obesity-related diseases due to a genetic predisposition.

However, obesity is beatable with the right moral support and motivation, said psychologist Sailaja Menon.

“Obesity is a complex condition for which no single cause or cure exists. Many give up beating obesity because of the low self-esteem they feel about themselves and their body image. To some others, it’s a learned behaviour that they find difficult to break away from,” said Menon, who works at the Dubai Community Health Centre.

“They lose hope and resign to the belief that this is their way of life… Therefore, the key to motivating a person to beat obesity is to create awareness and instil a sense of hope that obesity’s curable and manageable. This can be achieved through developing support systems such as counselling, regular visits to a dietician, identifying friends who can motivate and inspire you to stay on the goal; physical exercise, support of family…”