As time goes on, it appears that the world is actually getting rounder. Not in geophysical terms, of course, but in terms of its inhabitants. Apparently, we are all growing too fat.Not only has the GCC exceeded the world’s growth rate in terms of expanding wallets, but in terms of expanding waistlines as well. While GCC countries are enjoying a GDP growth of several percentage points higher than the rest of the world as 2007 rolls to a close, they are also boasting an obesity rate of around 60% to top the world’s 6%.
Are these elevated statistics related? Perhaps. As the GCC grows wealthier, lifestyles change accordingly....
More money means a more sedentary lifestyle – people are able to hire others to do manual labor jobs. Citizens, on the other hand, are taking on jobs with an increasing reliance on technology, settling the majority of residents in front of a computer screen instead of outside.
Increased employment rates in industrializing areas mean that people have less time to spend preparing food, opting instead for quicker options to be found on the go. Two out of every three Emiratis in the UAE consume fast food at least once per week. One can stop at any of the 300+ fast food restaurants in Dubai alone - all beginning to tailor their menus to the Arab population specifically (McArabia, anyone?).
The junk food industry itself is a $8.3 billion a year industry in the GCC, with a whopping 90% of that consolidated in Saudi Arabia alone.
Much of this food is processed or packaged, containing high amounts of preservatives, salt, cholesterol, fats and refined sugars - the type of diet that can rapidly lead to obesity when coupled with lack of exercise.
Why Obesity = Bad
Obesity in itself may not be reason for panic. As we all know, bigger is sometimes better. The problem is the host of health complications to which obesity invariably leads. A high body mass index progressively increases the rise in diseases leading to heart attacks, strokes, death, blindness, kidney failure, amputations and hypertension in developing. Obesity is further associated with musculoskeletal disorders (osteoarthritis from supporting too much weight), certain types of cancer, and mental illnesses such as depression.
Dubai is a good example of this connection, with many of the adult population qualifying as obese and of which a full one fifth of are affected by diabetes. In fact, four out of five countries with the highest adult diabetes prevalence are Gulf states [the UAE (19.5%), Saudi Arabia (16.7%), Bahrain (15.2%), and Kuwait (14.4%)] showing higher than average obesity rates and elevated diabetes rates compared to the rest of the world.
The problem extends far beyond the expanding waistbands of the fat guys. In these cases, society is called upon to treat (and pay for) those with obesity-related illnesses. The GCC expects the need for hospital beds to fully double in the next couple of decades, and expects a corresponding five-fold increase in hospital costs. They have already begun racing to implement a $10 billion dollar hospital-building program in anticipation of this surge of in-patients.
Who Suffers Most?
Curiously, though sedentary lifestyles and poor diets resulting from industrialization are cited as the most influential causes of obesity in the GCC; more women are obese than men. Though researcher Dr. Abdul Rahman Mosaiqer blames a rapid pregnancy cycle in which many women do not have a long enough interval between pregnancies, others point fingers at the lack of emphasis on female exercise. Indeed in Saudi Arabia, where most schools do not offer PE class to females, a full two out of three women are overweight (compared to less than one out of every four men).
It is true that for Saudi woman, exercise options are stringently limited. Women can try dieting, or eating healthier foods, but you would be hard pressed to find them in a gym or jogging along the street. Though working out is technically legal for females, many women find the societal stigmas attached unbearable. Women report being harassed off of Riyadh’s walking paths, despite donning the required walking cloaks, and are not allowed to enter the gyms or pools of local hotels.
Certain opponents of female gym classes make religious arguments, claiming that the disrobing of the girls and the concentration on their physical movements will cause them to lose their characteristic modesty. Others are opposed to the idea of women exercising in view of men (on the walking paths, for example), providing the men with immoral temptations.
Some see these arguments as a misinterpretation of the religion. Muslims consider the body to be a gift from Allah and carry the responsibility of caring for that gift.
Physical health is considered to be an important attribute of Islamic belief, provided of course, that women stay within the guidelines (such as dressing modestly and exercising separately from men). It therefore seems that, in addition to encouraging women to have healthier habits themselves, society must also encourage men to provide an environment in which this is possible.
So What’s A Nation To Do?
Fortunately, as bellies are catching up to them, so too are the conceptions of women and exercise in a modernizing society. In January, the University College of Jubayl marked the first time in Saudi history that a physical education class was offered for women. Hopefully other universities will follow suit, realizing that physical health affects everyone, individually and as a society.
Governments are already trying to increase public awareness, publishing tips and nutrition advice almost daily in newspapers clearly hip to the fact that citizens need to start trimming down. The idea is to target high-risk people before they become obese and help them formulate a prevention strategy. Focusing on personal demand and awareness is important in getting people to modify their own behaviors... choosing what to pack in a school lunchbox, for example, or being mindful that car obsession is not a good reason to drive short distances when walking both nurtures the body and the environment. People need good sources of information that help them take care of themselves practically.
Schools must be involved in this process as well - teaching courses on nutrition and physical health, providing healthy choices for lunches and encouraging exercise. Children currently learn eating and lifestyle habits from their parents, who as we see, do not yet have it quite right. The schools can then serve an enormously important role, intervening in the fat cycle passed from parent to child, and preventing obesity before it starts.
It may be wise for governments to act on the supply side as well, providing financial incentives for companies to use healthier ingredients in their products and helping schools provide better lunch choices to students.
By Sarah Schmidhofer