According to statistics from UAE health authorities, an average adult in the UAE consumes more than 3,000 calories per day, 20-25 per cent above the average. The recommended amount is 2,500 calories daily for men and 2,000 for women Image Credit: Corbis

Obesity, a condition of extreme overweight that affects health, has become a notable problem in the UAE. According to findings by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2012, around 20 per cent of the total resident adult population (expats and migrant workers factored in) were overweight or obese. Around 39.9 per cent of Emirati women were obese compared to around 25.6 per cent men.

This result pushes the UAE into the top ranks of global obesity statistics. While the fattest nations can be found in the Pacific Ocean, with Nauru leading the pack at an obesity rate of 80+ per cent of its population, the UAE comes close behind the US and Canada, some Latin American states, Australia and New Zealand. In North Africa and the Middle East only Kuwait had a higher obesity rate for men and Kuwait and Egypt for women, according to the WHO findings.

WHO considers people obese when their body mass index (BMI) exceeds 30 kg/m. To determine one’s own rank in the global fat scale, BBC has recently published a self-assessment tool (www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-18770328) where people can calculate their BMI and see where they rank as individuals in the global obesity scale.

Reasons of obesity

While the obesity phenomenon is nothing new in the UAE, health authorities are concerned about the rapid growth of the number of obese people. In the late 1990s, the problem began with child obesity. In 1999, 24.8 per cent of boys and 89.2 per cent of girls aged four to 18 were overweight, according to the International Obesity Taskforce, a research institution in Australia that collects data for WHO. As a result, 13.5 per cent of the UAE’s population had diabetes in 2000. Today, 20 per cent of the population suffers from diabetes due to wrong eating habits and being overweight, and 67 per cent of Emirati men and 72 per cent of Emirati women are overweight

Since the early 1990s, the UAE’s population has grown by more than 200 per cent. The country’s rapid expansion, its fast-paced lifestyle and its embrace of Western consumer habits have created a natural market for convenience food, and a sharp increase in obesity has become a national concern. According to statistics from UAE health authorities, an average adult in the UAE consumes more than 3,000 calories per day, 20-25 per cent above the average. The recommended amount is 2,500 calories daily for men and 2,000 for women.

“Especially for women, obesity has become a serious health problem in the Arab countries,” says Megan Hafatalla, a Canadian-born nutritionist who works in Dubai Healthcare City. “Cultural and social factors play a big role as women and girls are not encouraged to engage in sports. They are also accustomed to the lifestyle of convenience and fast food that increases their calorie intake.”

Adding to this, the traditional Emirati diet is also very high in fat and people consume large quantities of carbohydrates in every meal, ” she adds.

The UAE Ministry of Health has recently calculated that 44.6 per cent of Emirati women will be obese by 2015. At a symposium called Exercise is Medicine held last December, the Dubai Health Authority in cooperation with the American College of Sports Medicine pointed out that physical inactivity has become a fast-growing public health problem contributing to developing many chronic diseases including obesity, diabetes and even cancer.

The latest Dubai health survey, conducted by the Dubai Health Authority, showed that only 19 per cent of the population in Dubai gets sufficient exercise to remain healthy.

“We need to encourage the community to undertake regular exercise. Physical activity need not be strenuous to be beneficial and people of all ages benefit from participating in regular, moderate-intensity physical activity, such as 30 minutes of brisk walking five or more times a week,” says Laila Al Jassmi, CEO of Health Policy and Strategy Sector at the Dubai Health Authority.

“Reducing risk factors such as unhealthy diet and inadequate physical activity is a high strategic priority for us, but it requires a mix of intervention strategies including risk-factor prevention, early case detection and effective treatment,” she adds.

Change in mindset

However, so far there seems to be little awareness about the health impact of being overweight or obese among the population. One factor of obesity risk is the prevalence of the cultural notion that a fat child is supposed to be healthy, while a thin one is supposed to be sick.

“People have become victims of their affluence, they are spoiled by their high incomes,” says Dr Ayoub Al Jawaldeh, regional adviser on nutrition at the WHO’s Office for the Eastern Mediterranean Region.

“Low levels of exercise and overeating the wrong foods — all this has led to increasing obesity. The problem is really serious,” he adds, referring to his team’s draft, Regional Nutrition Strategy for 2010–19, which urges all countries in the region to develop a national strategy for reducing obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases.

For many, there is a convenient way to at least cosmetically reduce their signs of being overweight or obese. Among the 1.4 million health tourists who annually travel to Thailand, 30 per cent are from Gulf countries, of which 100,000 are from the UAE, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Besides the top conditions for diagnosis being heart and digestive system, among the top cosmetic surgeries are tummy tucks and liposuction at costs that are one-third of what would have been charged at hospitals at home.

“There are a lot of Arab patients coming to us with overweight or obesity problems,” Kachin Wattanawong, specialist for cosmetic surgery at Bangkok’s largest hospital complex Bumrungrad, tells GN Focus.

“I don’t understand them,” a nurse at the Diabetes Center at Bumrungrad Hospital, who gave her name only as Phong, says. “They have a liposuction and after they are back on their feet I see them just across the street sitting at a restaurant with falafel and a shisha or at a fast-food shop. Why don’t they try our healthy Thai food and use the swimming pool in their five-star residences?”