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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Did oil bring obesity as well as wealth to the UAE?

Experts met in Abu Dhabi this week to discuss the health epidemic

Ian Caterson, President of the World Obesity Federation, says the ease of obtaining food in a wealthy country like the UAE adds to its obesity problem. Leslie Pableo for The National
Ian Caterson, President of the World Obesity Federation, says the ease of obtaining food in a wealthy country like the UAE adds to its obesity problem. Leslie Pableo for The National

The UAE’s rapid rise to wealth may have contributed to its obesity problem, health professionals say.

Budour Alkaf from Abu Dhabi’s Imperial College London Diabetes Centre, said that while there was little data to back this theory, experts believed the discovery of oil and resultant economic boom 40 years ago was a major contributor to the country’s obesity epidemic.

Statistics from the World Health Organisation show the prevalence of obesity in the UAE increased from 9.3 per cent in 1975 to 27.5 per cent in 2016.

Ms Alkaf said that in the past 10 years, the diabetes centre has had about 500,000 patients, of whom 70 per cent are diabetic. It sees about 700 patients a day, most of them Emirati.

Global obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults and 41 million children below the age of 5 were overweight or obese.

Almost a third of the UAE’s population is classed as obese, and a 2015 report by Abu Dhabi Health Department showed 15 per cent of children in the emirate were obese and 17 per cent were overweight.

It’s a similar picture throughout the GCC. The disease effects 35.7 per cent of the population in Saudi Arabia and 49.1 per cent in Kuwait, making the Middle East’s obesity rates some of the highest in the world, Ms Alkaf told the Gulf Obesity Summit in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.

She said that rapid development might have unintentionally led to an unhealthy lifestyle.

“This rapid urbanisation led to the lifestyle we are living today, which is very modern, fast paced and technology driven,” Ms Alkaf said. “Unfortunately, this also led to decreased physical activity and a high consumption of unhealthy food.”

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The condition shows no sign of slowing down. An estimated 14.6 per cent of young people below the age of 20 in the UAE will be considered obese by 2025, the summit was told.

Experts gathered in the ­capital to discuss solutions stressed that there could be no quick fixes.

They recommended that the UAE starts using front-of-pack labels to inform shoppers of a food item’s healthiness – a method already adopted in Australia, Mexico, Chile and the UK.

“Here in the UAE, it is already very good that they have started with a tax on sugar and energy drinks. That is a start,” said Ian Caterson, president of the World Obesity Federation. “The other things are subsidies on health food and regulations on the labelling of food. Labelling does change people’s choices.”

Australia, he said, had a star-rating system, while countries such as the UK had adopted a traffic-light system.

“We have to do a number of things and, in food, the logical thing is food labelling and menu labelling in restaurants,” Mr Caterson said.

The Department of Health has already launched Weqaya, a nutrition programme in collaboration with Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority.

The programme aims to raise awareness about healthy food options by adding a Weqaya logo next to pre-approved menu items at restaurants.

Dr Abdelrahman Nimeri, the director of Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, said advertising should be restricted on food that is high in sugar or salt, and that obesity is not just the sufferers’ problem – it is also the responsibility of legislators and health-care providers.

“We should not allow manufacturers to use cartoon figures to encourage children to buy unhealthy or food that is high in sugar,” Dr Nimeri said.

“If you keep fast food, unhealthy food and sugary drinks in the environment and you make it more difficult to walk and exercise, then of course people will be obese.

“People need to realise that obesity is the trunk of a tree whose fruits are diabetes, cancer, heart disease, lung problems, infertility.

“People focus on prevention, but we need to focus on treatment as well.”

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