DOHA // By noon in Qatar's newest malls, the Starbucks and Costa are buzzing with patrons. They sip sugary coffee mixes and enjoy cakes as snacks — a tide-over for lunch later.
"It's really painful sometimes to watch," says Katie El Nahas, a dietician with the Qatar Diabetes Association. "They are eating so many calories and they're not aware."
As Doha has grown in recent years, so have its residents. Western restaurant chains have taken off, lifestyles have become more sedentary, and waistlines have expanded accordingly. A survey released by Qatar's Supreme Council for Health last week found that 70 per cent of the population is overweight, with 41.4 per cent obese.
Recently, however, a different kind of western trend has emerged in Qatar: dieting. Just as businesses have filled the demand for global fast food, they've also leapt at the chance to appeal to the newly health conscious.
Across from the coffee shops in Doha's City Centre mall, a non-fat frozen yogurt shop offers low-calorie snacks. The nearby Carrefour boasts an aisle with diet foods.
"Customers' shopping trends have changed over the years," says Ralph El Kahi of Spinneys, the British grocery store chain that has two stores in Qatar. Demand for health products is rising, he says. "The sugar free or zero fat in addition to the gluten-free products, oat range, natural compositions … we carry them all."
There are no statistics available, and the diet market is, by most estimations, quite small. But its potential is certainly great, as the few gyms and food businesses that have tapped it have already found.
"With the younger generation, [ideas about health] are starting to change. They want to look slender, they want to look good," says Sharoud Al Jundi Matthis, programme manager at the Qatar Diabetes Association. "Now, it's starting to happen that the healthier fast food places are coming in."
The same Supreme Health Council survey found that roughly half of all Qataris exhibit at least three of five measured risk factors - excess weight, smoking, and poor diet - for diabetes and other obesity-related conditions, such as cardiovascular disease.
As elsewhere worldwide, poor diet and sedentary lifestyles are largely to blame. Fewer than one out of 10 Qataris are estimated to meet dietary recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption every day. About three-fourths do not exercise.
The prevalence of chronic conditions is having some impact on changing mentalities, Mr Matthis says.
Businesses that have managed to fit a measure of health into those already-formed habits have done well.
One example is the success of Edible Arrangements, an American franchise that has two locations in Doha, with plans for another. The company cuts fruits such as melons and strawberries into shapes to form edible gift baskets.
"Before, a Qatari used to give chocolates or cakes when they visited friends," says Moheb Yousef, who runs the franchises. "The main idea is you should now give fruit as a gift." He says that despite Qatar's heavy expatriate population, 80 per cent of his customers are local.
Gyms are another beneficiary of the slow, steady shift in mentalities.
During the night-time hours of Ramadan, dozens of residents of Wakrah, a suburb of Doha, flooded into a newly built gym for a new post-Iftar ritual. "Before, no one cared about their weight or working out," said Ali A Al Muftah, managing director of the Anytime Fitness centre. "But now they have realised that health matters."
Mr Al Muftah's gym became so popular during the holy month that he offered Ramadan-long memberships. Clients are not just joining the club; they actually show up. The gym estimates that between a fourth and half of its members use it every day.
He plans to open an additional gym - six times larger — in the coming months.
Mr Al Muftah also hopes to move more directly into the diet business by expanding into another segment of the market, introducing a meal supplement programme for its customers. Gym and store owners as well as public-health experts acknowledge that its customer base is still relatively small.
But education programs might be able to change that in the coming years. The focus of the Qatar Diabetes Association, for example, is on education. "We work on the younger generation, where we can change attitudes," says Mr Matthis.
The country's Supreme Health Council, with input from the Qatar Diabetes Association, is also working to build new dietary guidelines for school cafeterias. The country has forced soda and sweets machines out of schools.
But as more food chains pay attention to health, the options for dieters, both young and old, are on the rise.