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  Middle East & Africa
Obesity in Arab World Is on Rise
By Rolando M. Fuertes Jr.
Special Correspondent
An Arabic restaurant
MANAMA, BAHRAIN — Obesity is very recent phenomenon. For years, obesity has been an unspoken, hidden issue. Not now. It is out in the open. Fat-related stories are spilling out of the headlines, spreading like mayonnaise over the front pages of various newspapers and magazines.

Often known as the Battle of the Bulge, obesity has assumed epidemic proportions worldwide. The numbers are especially bad in the Gulf states because of the rapid pace of social and economic changes over the last few decades. In the Middle East, in particular, obesity is becoming a major problem.

Studies by the World Health Organisation (WHO) show that over 50 percent of people in the Gulf are overweight and obese, caused by lack of exercise, sedentary lifestyles and poor eating habits.

High levels of obesity exist particularly among women, but often men too, in many countries as diverse as Egypt, and the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia.
Obesity rates of 25-30 percent and even higher are typical in Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In fact, Bahraini girls are among the heaviest in the world. Only one in 10 Bahraini women has admitted to exercising regularly.

According to the Bahrain Centre for Studies and Research, the rapid rise in living standards is to blame. Before oil wealth, Gulf Arabs typically ate bread or rice with fish, vegetables and fruit — and meat only rarely. But consumption of sugar, fat and processed foods has shot up and intake of fresh fruit and vegetables has dropped. The study notes people in the United Arab Emirates consume, on average, 79 kg of meat a year, compared with only 13 kg in less wealthy and more traditional Yemen.

Almost 70 percent of Kuwaiti women suffer from obesity. Though more common in females, obesity also affects Kuwaiti men and causes several serious diseases such as heart attacks, high blood pressure, and disorders of hormones.

For men suffering from obesity, diabetes — an incurable condition in which the body can't break down sugars in the blood — and hardening of the blood vessels are the most commonly linked diseases.

On the other hand, obese women suffer from chronic ailments such as vein hardening, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Indeed, it is the sedentary lifestyle which is the primary indicator for the incidence of obesity.

In Iran, obesity rates vary from rural to urban populations rising to 30 percent among women in Tehran.

An Arabic belly dancer
Interestingly, obesity is now a major problem in Saudi Arabia among men and women. Overweight women, overweight young women and grossly overweight young women are becoming very common sights on city streets, in cold stores and supermarkets. The percentage of overweight and obesity increases with older age groups and this leads to more health problems. Studies in 2000 on the prevalence of overweight and obesity among hypertensive and diabetic adult patients found that 46 percent of them were obese.

In the last three decades, obesity among adults, especially women, has increased and become a major health problem in Saudi Arabia.

A 1999 study by the WHO on obesity in Saudi Arabia among Saudis aged 14 and above, showed that 27.23 percent of males and 25.20 percent of females were overweight, with the prevalence of obesity being 13.05 percent among males and 20.26 percent among females.

For females, there were other contributing factors that cause obesity such as spending a great deal of time indoors, having little access to sports and other physical activities, socialising frequently where eating is the main activity, repeated pregnancy and employing maids to do housework.

It should be noted that the WHO has announced that obesity is already a "world-wide epidemic." Practically speaking, no one is immune. We now know that obesity is a greater health problem today than drinking or even smoking. WHO experts believe obesity will soon be the number one cause of all preventable deaths in the world. Not cigarette smoking or drug use, but obesity.

Chronic medical problems caused by obesity include almost all ‘modern' diseases: high blood pressure, stroke, gallbladder problems, sleep apnoea, gout — the list just goes on and on.

People around the world are struggling with their weight more than ever. What is to blame for this increase in weight gain?

We are told this is how we should eat: breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.

But in today's fast-paced world, few have the time to enjoy a big breakfast or prepare a nutritious lunch. Most of us resort to fast-food options during the day, grabbing something quick to eat while scurrying off to a meeting. Fastfood chains are popping up everywhere and people are struggling to resist the temptation.

The main home-cooked meal is now consumed in the evening, when little, if any physical activity follows. The inevitable consequence: more and more people are gaining weight.

As reliable access to healthy foods declines, the likelihood of being overweight goes up.

As processed foods rich in sugar and fat have become cheaper than fruits and vegetables, the poor in particular are paying a high price with obesity rates soaring, followed by diabetes. This is happening even as conditions associated with malnutrition — like anemia, caused by an iron deficiency in diets lacking leafy greens — continue to plague poor people.

Interestingly, although being overweight usually is associated with eating too much rather than with hunger, a growing body of research is showing that the people who have gained the most weight in the last decade tend to have the lowest incomes.

Other Articles by Rolando M. Fuertes Jr.
    Third Worlder: "World, Read My E-mail!"
    Shisha: An Arab Delight, a Taste of Home
    Arab Countries Burdened with Rising ...
    Women Empowerment Must Start at Home

Rolando Maniego Fuertes, Jr. is currently working as sub-editor for Bahrain Tribune. An experienced writer, Fuertes is basically a feature writer whose articles have appeared in various international publications including Arab News, Worldpaper, and The Seoul Times. While running a sports column for the Tribune entitled On and Off, he has also written commentaries about Philippine political landscape.






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