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The fat issue

The fat issue

When will the GCC realize that buying Olympic athletes and football clubs won’t help curb the region’s growing obesity problem?


October 12, 2008 12:27 by

Fat chance

One of problems is that a significant number of Gulf Arabs are obese. According to the World Health Organization, almost 75 percent of the region’s population over 15 years of age is overweight. The fattest nation in the region is Kuwait. It’s also the eighth fattest nation in the world; clearly it isn’t a world ranking Kuwait was keen on achieving.

The UAE, the second fattest nation in the GCC, doesn’t fare well either. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), unless there are drastic changes to the eating and sporting habits of the UAE’s population, half will be affected by diabetes in the next 25 years.

Like other emerging markets, the GCC’s population suffers from the benefits of frenetic economic booms: processed foods have replaced fresh products; office jobs replace hard labor, while sedate afternoons in front of the television replace outdoor activities for kids.

It’s a phenomenon most developing nations experience. What makes the GCC and its overweight population a curious story is the amount of money and attention the governments have spent on international sporting clubs and players as the nations’ desperate fat-epidemic continues to worsen.

Inherent predispositions

In January 2008, the Bahraini Labor Minister Majid Al-Alawi launched a scathing and public attack against Gulf Arabs and their laziness. He warned GCC nationals that if they don’t change their habits, the region will suffer an impending “Asian Tsunami.” He was referring to their working habits, but their laziness has also affected their health.

Maha Barakat, an endocrinologist at Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Abu Dhabi, explains that the Gulf Arab race is genetically predisposed to developing diabetes at a significantly lower BMI than other races. Coupled with diets consisting of high-fat and sugar intakes, combined with reduced physical activity, incidents of type 2 diabetes are understandably common in the region.

Other factors are contributing to the growing number of overweight and obese Gulf Arabs are cultural factors. An article in Diabetes Voice entitled Childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes: a goring public health challenge in UAE, points at local perceptions of class having further worsened the obesity-epidemic: “As in many African and Mediterranean communities, [being] overweight is widely perceived as a desirable feature in the Arab countries, a sign of good health. A fundamental change is necessary in the way walking is popularly perceived: strictly the low-income transport option.”

Finally, the GCC’s cultural restrictions on the appearance of women in public and their participation in sports further exacerbates their obesity, as the results from the WHO display. It is unsurprising, then, that a higher percentage of women than men are obese in the GCC. In Kuwait the percentage is as high as 52.9 percent, as opposed to their male compatriot’s average of 29.6 percent.

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