Discussion of obesity in the Gulf has spilled over the media lately like a muffin top over a waistband that is too tight. A recent U.N. report has drawn fresh attention to worrying figures showing that Arab states have more than caught up with overweight countries in the West.
The report, which takes its figures on obesity from a study published by the World Health Organization, shows that Gulf Cooperation Council countries are now among the fattest in the world.
Obesity rates in non-Gulf Arab countries have also increased, bringing them equal to or more than rates in more developed countries such as the United States.
Kuwait fared the worst in the report, with 42.8 percent of its adult population classed as obese.
Compare that to the United States, often scoffed at by others for being a nation of fat people, where 31.8 percent of people are obese, and the gravity of the situation becomes clear.
In fact, this places Kuwait in the top 10 most obese countries in the world.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not far behind, with 35.2 percent and 33.1 percent respectively.
Overweight and obesity come with further health problems. Obesity is associated with heart disease, osteoarthritis and type 2 diabetes.
Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are all in the top 10 countries worldwide in terms of diabetes.
In Kuwait, 21.1 percent of the population suffers from the disease, according to figures from the International Diabetes Foundation published in the Gulf-based news website Arabian Business.
These worrying figures, as well as stories about Dubai’s scheme to get its citizens to lose weight by bribing them with gold, or Qataris being rushed to hospital after overeating on the first night of Ramadan, suggest that perhaps it is time to consider why GCC countries carry the dubious distinction of being among the fattest in the world.
In Qatar, obesity is the greatest factor in the increasing incidence of type 2 diabetes among nationals, medical consultant Mohsen el-Edrisi told The Peninsula this week.
Last week, Qatar said it was considering plans to include anti-obesity awareness studies in the school curriculum, the newspaper reported.
In a statement on Friday, Qatar’s Supreme Council of Health revealed the plans.
"Plans are... afoot to make anti-obesity awareness studies a part of the school curriculum," said Dr Faleh Mohamed Hussain Ali, assistant secretary-general of the SCH.
A panel is coordinating with the education sector and the National Olympic Committee to curb the menace, he added.
Common and well-understood causes of obesity worldwide are the excessive consumption of fatty, salty, processed and pre-packaged foods, as well as lack of exercise.
The rapid increase in wealth, and the subsequent development of Gulf countries, has resulted in a sudden change in lifestyle.
International fast-food chains, easy access to cars, and the popularity of cheap, processed food in supermarkets have all contributed to Arab and Gulf countries’ dramatic waistline expansion.
Sales of packaged and processed foods were predicted to increase 11 percent this year to $52 billion, according to food export marketing company Athena Market International.
As for diabetes, Dr Saf Naqvi, consultant diabetologist and endocrinologist at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre, told Al Arabiya that both genetic and lifestyle factors may play a role.
“No one really fully knows yet what causes diabetes, but genetic factors, weight, lifestyle, environment and viruses may have a part to play,” said Dr Naqvi.
“A more sedentary lifestyle and bad eating habits have been cited as the main causes of the increasing prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the UAE,” he said.
Maha Taysir, endocrinologist at the ICLDC in Abu Dhabi, told Arabian Business that there may be a genetic factor.
“Research suggests that people (in the Gulf) have a lower set-point at which their body-mass index levels trigger the onset of diabetes.”
However, lifestyle is sure to be a contributing factor, as even expats in the Gulf have a higher incidence of diabetes than in their home countries, Taysir said.
Worse for women
The breakdown of the obesity results shows another worrying issue. While the global trend shows that women are more likely to be obese than men, in Arab countries and the GCC the disparity is much greater.
While in terms of overweight men and women are equal, often the percentage of women who are obese is twice that of men.
Possible reasons for this disparity could be the culture of women staying at home, leading to a lack of exercise.
A Gallup poll in 2011 found that only 16 percent of Saudi women exercised for 30 minutes or more three times a week, compared with 27 percent of Saudi men.
Education, education, education
So what can be done about this Arab obesity epidemic? The Gallup poll showed that those who were more educated and aware of the benefits of healthy eating tended to change their habits.
The U.N. report, too, says that while it is difficult to measure the effects of public health campaigns, nutrition education is effective at tackling obesity.
According to an article in Middle East business website Kipp Report, overall spending on healthcare in the Gulf is just $1,200 per capita, compared with $5,000 in “developed countries.”
The evidence that awareness makes for better eating habits, and the possibility that a lack of facilities leads to Saudi and Bahraini women’s lack of exercise, suggests that there is room for both government and corporate institutions to do more.
However, Dr Naqvi told Al Arabiya that the Abu Dhabi program at the ICLDC does lots of work to tackle diabetes, but responsibility for lifestyle changes also lies with the patient.
“It’s hardly realistic or fair to heap the entire burden on government shoulders, and some feel that the individual should take responsibility for their health.
“A collaborative effort among people with diabetes and those at risk of diabetes, governments and health services, health care professionals and the general public, is needed to manage the global diabetes challenge,” he added.
Dr Naqvi stressed the importance of education on the issue in the Gulf as the key to confronting the epidemic of obesity and diabetes.
“Public health campaigns through collaboration with state agencies and other stake holders is the way forward to control the rising incidence of obesity and diabetes.”
He also said campaigns must be relevant to the cultural norms of the region.
“Management of diabetes in this region must develop a culturally sensitive approach, taking into consideration the social tructure, dietary habits and economic constraints.”