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Climate change causing contagious effect on human health, ‘obesity crisis’ in the GCC

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Climate change has caused a “broken food system” leading to an obesity crisis in the GCC and wider Middle East, the CEO of the World Obesity Federation told Al Arabiya.

Johanna Ralston was speaking on the sidelines of COP28 on Sunday designated as “health” day at COP28, where topics under discussion include air quality and the unhealthy effects of climate change.

She spoke after the announcement of the launch of the Middle East and North African Association of Obesity; established to tackle the region’s obesity challenges.

The MENA region currently grapples with some of the world’s highest obesity rates, and alarming projections indicate a substantial increase by 2035 without decisive action.

Ralston said that obesity levels continue to soar in the GCC, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

While many may assume climate change is more linked to undernutrition rather than obesity, Ralston said “they are both sides of the same coin.”

“It is really all about the food systems that are not serving the people that needs to be serving,” she said. “That’s somewhat broken.”

“We have commodified our food systems to the point where people are not able to access healthy foods. We’ve just gone too far in the direction of being cheap over being healthy and being easily transportable.”

Malnutrition, especially obesity, is the leading cause of poor health worldwide. Despite no obvious connection, climate change is also a contributing factor to this issue. One factor is, with climate change, increasing ambient temperatures and precipitations could contribute to a higher obesity rate due to reductions in physical activity.

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And as extreme weather increases, fruit and vegetable products will become more expensive, making it harder to maintain a healthy diet.

Although not all processed foods are unhealthy, a high intake of these food products is linked to poor diet quality, obesity and diet-related non-communicable (NCD) risks.

Climate change induced food insecurity is also linked to a higher rate of obesity. Not only in developing countries, but food insecurity also happens in economically stable countries.

As Ralston explained, “It is about things like the way the fossil fuel subsidies allow for transporting food into places.”

“Agriculturally poor” countries like the UAE, and Saudi have less access to healthier, more nutritious food that would address both undernutrition and obesity, she said.

“In the case of obesity, it’s very much also about ultra-processed foods, which are cheap and transportable.”

By design, ultra-processed food is highly palatable, cheap, and contain preservatives that offer a long shelf life.

With the World Obesity Federation predicting that nearly one in four children (64 million children) and one in three adults (212 million adults) in the Eastern Mediterranean region will be living with obesity by 2035, the Middle East and North African Association of Obesity coalition advocates for immediate collaboration to ensure necessary support for those affected.

The coalition commits to being at the forefront of implementing obesity policies and practices endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO), following the WHO 2022 Obesity Recommendations and its Acceleration Plan. At COP28, the coalition urges world leaders to recognize action on obesity as a crucial aspect of climate mitigation and allocate a greater proportion of financing to public health.

“The coalition is really about the different stakeholders coming together; the health system, the government, the private sector, to ensure access to more balanced food systems,” said Ralston who says some one in three children in the Middle East are obese or overweight.

“This is such an important region in terms of economic development, and it’s going to continue to be limited by the obesity challenges if not adequately addressed.”

“We need healthier, less processed, publicly available food, especially starting at school age, and adequate funding for health and physical activity.”

“Without action, health systems will be crippled.”

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