ABU DHABI // Doctors cannot say it enough: weight loss, exercise and healthy eating can prevent people from getting diabetes, and reduce or eliminate symptoms in those who have it. That means no medication, less frequent or no blood-sugar testing, and far fewer scary complications - heart disease, limb amputation - that accompany the condition. And it seems those at risk in the UAE, which has the second-highest rate of diabetes in the world, affecting one in five residents, are beginning to listen.
It was four years ago when Bader Mohammed Jadah, 29, realised he weighed 169.7kg. Shortly after that, a doctor gave the Emirati mechanical engineer from Sharjah a chilling diagnosis. "The doctor there told me directly that my weight would kill me and I would not make it to 30," he said. "Diabetes was just around the corner for me and I had to do something." He made some headway with diet and exercise, but last year he had stomach-reduction surgery. He is down to 96kg, works out regularly and eats healthy meals. He wants his story to motivate others. "I was able to avoid diabetes, and I want to show others that it can be done," he said. Dr Osama Hamdy, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard University, organises courses on diabetes management for doctors in the UAE. "I think limiting the progression of diabetes in this country and region can happen absolutely, if doctors focus on prevention instead of just treatment," he said. Helping patients to lose weight is key, he said. "We want people to start thinking 'why wait' so they will change their lives today, not when they get sick," he said. Dr Wafaa Ayesh, director of the clinical nutrition department at the Dubai Health Authority, said doctors should not be treating diabetics without stressing nutrition. She said doctors have had success treating children on the verge of diabetes with diet and exercise. Studies have shown that people predisposed to get diabetes can avoid it through diet and exercise - as little as a half hour of walking five days a week, said Dr Maha Barakat, the medical and research director of the Imperial College of London Diabetes Centre in the capital. She said people diagnosed with early onset diabetes can actually "reverse" it. The challenge then becomes sustainability. "Stopping the exercise and going back to eating how they used to eat will bring back the danger and the diabetes," she said. Dr Cother Hajat, section head of the public health programmes of the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi, also preached prevention last year at the Abu Dhabi Medical Congress. "Lifestyle interventions are more cost effective than drug interventions," said Dr Hajat, who predicted that by 2025 at least a third of the UAE's population will be living with diabetes. Dr Richard Nabhan, consultant diabetologist at Dar al Shifaa Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said public education needs to be more aggressive. People need to know the risks of diabetes, such as how cardiovascular disease leads to one death per minute, and diabetes-related amputations occur every 30 seconds around the world, he said. "Use scare tactics, scare children and patients and tell them what will happen to them if they continue eating the junk they like to eat," he said. Scare tactics worked for Mr Jadah. He is exercising and eating properly and he changed the rest of his life too. "People don't recognise me when they run into me. And I am so much more motivated because there is an end in sight for me." email@example.com * With additional reporting by Alison McMeans