ABU DHABI // Overworked and, by his guess, probably malnourished, Danish Saleen has struggled to keep both his career and diet healthy in the UAE. The 29-year-old salesman from Delhi frequently pulls 12-hour shifts at his job for a major Abu Dhabi bank. Six-day work weeks are not uncommon. And by the time he returns to his flat he often resorts to eating fast food, having already skipped two square meals.
"It's KFC, sometimes Pizza Hut, sometimes Indian or Chinese food," he said. Such eating habits are alarmingly common among professionals in the Middle East, according to a survey released this month by the Middle East recruitment website Bayt.com. The survey, Eating Habits in the Middle East Workplace, found that nearly one-third (28 per cent) of professionals in the region regularly eat just one meal a day. And more often than not, that meal is fast food as a late supper.
The poll was conducted online between May 31 and July 13 and used answers from 12,368 respondents across the Middle East. The results tally with the findings of polls carried out for The National by YouGov, an international research organisation. Forty-one per cent of respondents acknowledged unhealthy eating, including skipping meals, relying on junk food and consuming inadequate amounts of fruit and vegetables. In this regard, women (46 per cent) take worse care of themselves than men (39 per cent). As a group, at 45 per cent, Arab expatriates are the worst eaters.
Amer Zureikat, regional manager for Bayt.com, said the "ominous" answers were typical of professionals in the Middle East. They lead a "naturally busy lifestyle" and sacrifice healthy meals to chase clients or close deals. "As a matter of fact," he added, "an overwhelming 59 per cent said they gained weight to different extents since they started working, whereas only 18 per cent have maintained the same weight."
Dalia Shukri, a dietician at the American Hospital in Dubai, said she had seen too many cases of expatriate professionals piling on pounds by gorging on high-fat foods - even if they have only one meal per day - just before bedtime. "That's very common around working people here," she said. "It's not like it's intentional, but the majority of the men I see say they forget to eat sometimes." Her typical client may work 12 to 14 hours a day and grab a chocolate bar for sustenance until the evening, but breakfast should be the big meal, Ms Shukri said.
"At night, it's just too heavy, because they'll overeat, and then they just sleep." Mr Saleen estimates that since moving to the UAE four years ago, he has lost five pounds. That puts him among the minority (14 per cent) of participants who have shed weight. It has not necessarily been a welcome weight loss, however. "I have to go and meet clients and do a lot of stuff because of work pressure, so mostly I skip breakfast and lunch," Mr Saleen said.
Munawar Khan, 58, a service and maintenance manager for an air-conditioning company, said he gained more than 15 pounds in his first few years in the UAE. But he shed the weight and has kept it off by managing his diet and exercising. "I get up at 6.30am and must have a light breakfast in the morning and do some exercises," said Mr Khan, who is from India. Half an hour of exercise three times a week is all that is needed to stay fit, Ms Shukri said. She also recommended packing light snacks such as fruits or vegetables to have between meals.
Cecile Guillemot, 24, a marketing manager for a yachting company, keeps a tub of seeds and nuts at her desk for snacking. "I'll have some dried fruits or nuts during the day, and then I'll have lunch later, just to keep the energy levels up with something healthier." She also stays active by training endurance horses after work. Nearly three quarters (74 per cent ) of the professionals responding to the survey said their employers did not promote healthy lifestyles.
On the other hand, 13 per cent of participants reported that their offices had cafeterias serving healthy meals as well as company gyms that could be used during lunch. firstname.lastname@example.org