x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

An epidemic that affects us all - loved ones with diabetes

A family sweet tooth can be a source of amusement, as well as pleasure. But too often diabetes spoils the fun.

Often what you love the most ends up hurting you the most.

Many times in my childhood, I would leave my chocolate bar, usually a KitKat, unattended for a few seconds and then find it half-devoured. Teeth marks incriminated the usual suspect, my father.

He would beam at me innocently when I waved the remnant at him to ask if he had taken a bite. "It was your mother," he would say, smiling sheepishly.

My father had - and still has - a powerful sweet tooth. So it was a cruel day when he found out, at around the age that I am now, that he is diabetic.

It had been a family Friday tradition to get traditional sweets and pastries fresh from our favourite Syrian and Lebanese restaurants.

After the diagnosis, my mother would cook her versions of some of those delicious desserts, using less sugar. Some other treats we bought and hid; still others we gave up.

I have never forgotten my father's sad puppy eyes the day I forgot about his condition and walked in eating a fresh, chunky baklava and saying "yum this" and "yum that". I felt so guilty - and shuddered at the thought that one day I too, could not eat what I like. One of the best things in life is food.

I inherited my father's sweet tooth, and must be careful with my diet; genetics and lifestyle can both make the disease more likely.

A recent incident back home in Saudi Arabia reminded me of how difficult it is for diabetics, whatever their ages, to battle their illness in a culture that revolves around food high in sugar.

My father had been caught sneaking around looking for that dark chocolate bar he knew my mother had hidden somewhere.

My parents laughed telling the story. My mother had even used a torch as she cried: "Aha! I caught you."

But I felt sad. Why should anyone be prevented from eating heavenly chocolate?

Now, they are both diabetic, and in many ways this is easier, as neither one gets to eat sweets. On a constant diet, they suffer together.

In the Arab culture, every special occasion is celebrated with a feast, many dishes being high in fat, carbohydrates and sugar. It is a family joke, as I imagine it is in many families, to grab one's heart after a heavy meal and say: "Oh, my arteries are clogged!"

Meanwhile, the diabetics among us sit back and play with their salads and "special" food. Sometimes, under peer pressure to "join in", they dig into food that is not good for them. But they can pay painfully that night and the following day.

The consequences of diabetes aren't to be taken lightly. I have met many who have gone blind or lost toes; one person's entire foot had to be amputated. Even if one is careful, there will be kidney problems.

I think many families can identify with this, and are very supportive of each other. Almost every other person I know in the UAE has a loved one who is diabetic. About one Emirati in five has diabetes, mostly Type II, also called adult-onset diabetes. The UAE is 11th globally for the disease, and fifth regionally.

I can't believe that while we throw money at some forms of technology and telecommunications, we still lag behind in the medical field. Scientists and researchers have told me they struggle to find funding and recognition for their efforts to fight diseases. It irritates me that a celebrity can get millions for an appearance, yet finding funds for health and well-being is so difficult.

As with humanitarian aid and animal welfare, money for health research is still often considered to be charity rather than being an integral part of national budgets. Perhaps we should add a "health tax" on major companies and organisations. Who doesn't want a healthy productive employee?

Diabetes has become common, but is not easy to live with. There are many nutritional options these days, but I doubt that anything can replace eating without worrying about how each bite can hurt me.