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An employee dresses a large mannequin at the clothing store Strong in Amman, where overweight shoppers can find fuller sizes.
Salah Malkawi
An employee dresses a  large mannequin at the clothing store Strong in Amman, where overweight shoppers can find fuller sizes.

Jordanians fight battle of the bulge

With more than 50 per cent of the population overweight or obese, persuading people to eat better and exercise has become a top priority.

AMMAN // There is something different about the mannequins in Strong, a clothing shop in Jordan's capital. With more than half the country's population now classified as overweight or obese, fashion stores such as Strong are catering to the growing girth of their customers, with bigger models and larger clothing sizes. "There is demand for big sizes, people used to find it difficult to find an XXXL," said Wissam Haymouni, the director of Strong. "But now they are no longer concerned to find clothes their size." But being overweight has far more serious implications than simply being unable to find a trendy outfit, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, which is why the government is trying to promote healthy eating and exercise among the young. According to a health survey carried out in 2007 by the health ministry, 3.9 per cent of 2,197 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 15 were overweight and obese, 14.3 per cent were at risk of becoming overweight, 34.9 per cent were trying to lose weight and 14.1 per cent went hungry because there was not enough food at home. The study, in 25 schools across Jordan, also questioned students about their eating habits (nearly 15 per cent ate at fast-food restaurants while 38.1 per cent said they regularly drank sugary drinks); and their exercise habits (only 14.3 per cent were physically active for at least one hour seven days a week while 39.3 per cent spent three or more hours a day watching television, using the computer or doing other sedentary activities). Lina Snobar is a mother of two and knows how hard it is to get her children, Yazan, 10, and Tamer, 12, to eat right and exercise. "They love to eat and they nibble a lot. I cook at home but they prefer to eat junk food. It is all oily and I cannot control what they eat outside the home. They play computer games till almost 11 or 12 midnight," she said. "I take them to the pool to swim and ask them to follow me to ensure that they swim and not just play in the water." Jordan and other countries in the region are trying to come up with a strategy to fight obesity among adolescents, said Riyad Akour, the director of the school health directorate at the ministry of education. Mr Akour was among health experts from 17 countries who attended a four-day WHO-sponsored meeting in Tunisia last month to discuss the factors that lead to obesity and how to promote a healthier lifestyle among children. "The percentages of overweight and obesity are increasing [in Jordan]. We need to raise teachers' awareness to promote an active life. "For example, there needs to be incentives for physical education, which should be part of the school curriculum, and more schools need to have proper playgrounds," Mr Akour said. Although physical education is compulsory in Jordan, it is not treated with the same seriousness as subjects such as science and maths. In private schools, it does not even count towards a student's overall score as required by the education ministry. The ministry of health has made attempts to educate Jordanians about the risks associated with being overweight. Over the past few years, there have been several lectures for health workers and brochures distributed showing how to eat healthily, and advising how weight can be maintained by eating fruit and vegetables and exercising for 30 minutes a day. While health experts insist that now is the time to draw attention to sagging bellies and double chins, it also remains a challenge as the health ministry's budget for primary health care is limited. Last year, the health ministry dedicated only 20 per cent of its more than US$500,000 (Dh1.84 million) budget to primary health care, which includes programmes for the prevention of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and obesity. The battle to reduce waistlines is also not one the health ministry can fight alone. "Obesity is not a virus that can be cured by vaccination," said Myasser Zindah, the chief of the cardiovascular disease prevention department at the health ministry. "We are trying to fight obesity but intervention is not easy, and the results will take a long time to pay off. We want people to eat quality food and the right portions. Although people are becoming aware of the risks of obesity and its causes from our educational campaigns, when it comes to prevention, there is a challenge in applying the needed steps mostly because of people's behaviour." The ministry will launch an educational campaign in the near future to work on changing behaviour, she said, citing as an example how people indulge in syrupy deserts, but then ask for artificial sweetener in their coffee as a misguided attempt to cut back. smaayeh@thenational.ae

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