ABU DHABI // Living in the UAE has made me fat - that was the response given by 98 out of 100 overweight expatriates who were questioned about their weight gain since arriving in the country. Although the long, hot summer is often blamed for making exercise difficult, it is the UAE lifestyle that leads to obesity, said respondents to a survey.
The various foods, a brunch culture, long working hours and even having housemaids were blamed for adding an "expat stone". JD, a 34-year-old investment manager, said he began putting on weight when he first arrived from the UK two years ago. "I stayed in, went out for dinner, and had to settle down in a new place. So I got very little exercise, and subsequently piled on the pounds," he said. "It is easy to put on weight here, especially since people have to drive to wherever they want to get to, and because there is a culture of big meals in the country."
Sheldon D'Souza, a 31-year-old logistics officer, has also added weight since moving here from India a year and a half ago. "Work is stressful, and I do not get time to cook during the week," he said. "So I have to eat out, or order in even when I am home. There are not too many healthy foods available, so I end up putting on weight." More than a third of the people surveyed felt there was not enough support available in the country to help with weight loss and healthy lifestyle choices.
"There are often very few options to lose weight, particularly in the Northern Emirates like Fujairah and Ajman," said Wassim al Adhami, a 36-year-old school supervisor from Lebanon. "I have friends there who find it very hard to lose the weight they've put on. There aren't too many gyms, and people are not aware of the ones that exist. Many professions require people to be largely sedentary. This is a major factor in weight gain. Also, very few healthy foods are available."
Barbara Strijd, a 57-year-old housewife from the Netherlands, said she had put on weight since moving to the UAE because of a lack of options or awareness in the country. "It is often hard to find out where the gyms are, so that people end up getting less exercise," she said. "In addition, I think it is hard to exercise outdoors here when the temperature increases." The UAE has some of the highest rates of obesity in the world almost 40 per cent of women and 25 per cent of men. It is estimated between 60 and 70 per cent of the population is overweight.
According to the World Health Organisation, the UAE is 18th on the list of countries with the highest proportion of overweight and obese people. Obesity has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses and arthritis. But for many people, the social stigma is a more pressing daily concern. Of the people in the survey, 43 per cent said they had been subjected to taunting about their size.
"We can blame the UAE for obesity or blame ourselves for not taking control," said Leonard Tikitau, the sport and recreation manager at Abu Dhabi Country Club. "Where did we come from where we didn't gain weight and what has changed in our lifestyle for us to gain weight? What are we doing differently here that we weren't doing at home?" he asked. Although it could be easy to gain weight here, it was ultimately a person's choices that determined whether they became obese.
"I had a weight problem when I came, but when I arrived I gained more," said Sharon Jones, 39. She moved from England in March 2008. "When I first came I was in holiday mode a little because it was such a nice place with sunshine and what have you," she said. "We did have quite a few take-aways and quite a few Friday brunches." However, when she noticed she was increasing by the pound, she decided to take action. Since then she has lost almost four stone (25kg).
"I needed to lose the weight for health reasons and I wanted to look and feel better," she said. People questioned in the survey had a body mass index (BMI) of 25.3 to 42.4 and most were expatriates. A person with a BMI above 25 is considered overweight; one with a BMI above 30 is counted as obese. More than 50 per cent said they had been advised by a healthcare professional to lose weight and 92 per cent said they were trying to do so. The study was undertaken by VLCC, a Dubai-based aesthetic company that runs a slimming programme.
Whatever the circumstances, most experts agree that a change of geography cannot cause weight gain. "It's a change of lifestyle, not the country. It doesn't matter what country you are in," said Dr Bachar Afandi, an endocrinologist at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain. "I have too many patients with exercise machines at home and they don't exercise, even in the best weather. They join all kinds of fitness clubs and still don't exercise," he said.