Bahrain promotes healthy lifestyles as country eyes health tourism industry

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With its sights set on the potential to become a health tourism destination in the Arab Gulf, Bahrain recently hosted a two-day health and wellness expo, the third of its kind in the country, where soaring levels of obesity and diabetes have the health ministry promoting more active and ‘health conscious’ living in the Gulf state.

Bahrain has given countries in the Gulf some of the highest per capita incomes in the world. But it has also created lifestyles - overeating, high-sugar diets, sedentary jobs and heavy reliance on automobiles for transport - that are leading to an explosion of health issues, experts say.

Just two or three generations ago, many inhabitants of the region made their living through strenuous work such as fishing, goat-herding and pearl-diving. But now, physically demanding jobs in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), such as construction and oil field operation, are now almost entirely done by millions of foreign workers.

The 3rd Health & Wellness Expo took place from April 16-18 at Bahrain’s International Exhibition and Convention Centre in Manama. Said to be one of the most popular events organized by the health care sector, the opening was attended by Bahrain’s Minister of Health Sadiq Bin Abdul Karim Al Shehabi and a number of officials.

From booths promoting healthy nutrition, to live ‘work out’ demonstrations, the expo attracted members of the public seeking out answers on losing weight, eating healthily and learning different meditation and yoga techniques. It was open to the public for free.

“In the fast paced times we are living in, we no longer have time to pay attention to what we eat, so we opt for fast foods, which are generally unhealthy,” said Diana Nakhle, a health nutritionist and dietician at the Carlton Nutrition Center, which was established in 2002 to promote weight control programs and healthy living.

“So the sorts of food choices raise the chance of obesity and health problems. This is where the role of the nutrition specialist comes in, to help and guide people on the importance of food varieties and quantities so people can eat healthy food and adopt healthy nutritional habits so we can have a healthy weight and stray away from illness,” Nakhle added.

Five of the 10 countries where diabetes is most prevalent are located in the six-nation GCC, according to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), an umbrella organization of more than 200 national associations.
Bahrain ranks eighth with almost 15 percent of its more than one million population suffering from diabetes, an illness that accounts for five percent of deaths in the country.

Some Gulf residents also believe the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein in 1990-1991 may have contributed indirectly to the spread of obesity by fostering a junk food culture. Fast food outlets blossomed in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other countries where thousands of U.S. troops were stationed, and remained part of daily life after the troops withdrew.

“The level of obesity in Bahrain is higher than neighboring countries. This is strange but it’s the reality. It has become critical to deal with this. Of course this is true for many countries, but here in Bahrain the problem is significantly increasing,” Dr. Michel Mansour, chief medical officer at the American Mission Hospital in Manama said, adding he was concerned about the noticeable rise in obesity among Bahraini teens.

Genetic factors apparently also contribute to the Gulf’s high incidence of diabetes, an incurable disease in which the body has difficulty absorbing sugars and which is closely associated with obesity, scientists said. It can lead to cardiovascular problems, blindness, strokes and kidney disease.

“It has to be a way of life, in regards to both, the way of eating -- the kind of food for sure -- and also exercise,” Mansour added of the mechanisms to tackle issues around overweight.

Obesity, a major factor in diabetes and heart disease, imposes costs on both public and private sectors and is a drag on economic growth.

Even for wealthy Gulf oil exporters, the financial costs are unwelcome.

Medical care is heavily subsidized, and the UAE for example, spends 272 million USD on diabetes treatment annually. A study by the Abu Dhabi health authority estimated the overall social costs of the disease at about 1.9 billion USD.

Beyond the immediate financial costs, diabetes may threaten Gulf countries’ long-term plans for development. Aware that their dependence on oil leaves them vulnerable to global markets, the countries are trying to diversify their economies and bring more of their people into the workforce.

One effort by Bahrain to expand its economy is in promoting the health tourism industry.

A new development in Muharraq, Bahrain’s third largest city that once served as the kingdom’s capital, is set to feature a wide range of health and fitness facilities sure to attract many.

The 1.6 billion USD “Dilmunia” project is set to be completed around 2016.

“Dilmunia Island features health facilities in the center of the island. These facilities vary from specialized health centers to health care and fitness,” Mohammed Khalil Alsayed, the CEO of Ithmaar Development Company and Dilmunia Project, told Reuters.

Gulf rulers responded to political unrest in the Middle East by increasing welfare benefits for their citizens in a bid to buy social peace.

But some officials in the Gulf have privately conceded that this has further reduced the pressure on people to work.

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