x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Panel of experts addresses UAE obesity

Licensed nutritional healthcare providers can help people lose weight, but few consult them.

One nutritionist says the onus lies on restaurants to provide more healthy food.
One nutritionist says the onus lies on restaurants to provide more healthy food.

DUBAI // The main reason for losing weight is to look better, not to get healthier, half the people in a recent survey said.

The results give healthcare professionals a powerful clue about how to address the issue of obesity.

People who were the most overweight said that any loss of body mass should be achieved to improve their body image and self-esteem, while underweight people gave equal importance to both appearance and health, according to the findings released yesterday at a forum of healthcare professionals.

"A lot can be achieved by having a supportive environment and by communicating the right message to schools, parents and the media," said Dr Salah el Badawi, a consultant in public health with the Ministry of Health. "We need to make sure that there is adequate access to sports facilities, parks and health clubs."

The issue is particularly relevant in the UAE, where previous research has found that one in every eight Emiratis is obese.

Panellists yesterday at the Shangri La Hotel in Dubai agreed that people who want to reduce their body size must set their own goals with the support of professionals who can assess their overall health.

"We need to tell them what is right and guide them the right way, especially if it gives them the motivation," said Dr Babita Shetty, a specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist with NMC Specialty Hospital in Dubai.

Obesity can be a major contributor to polycystic ovary syndrome, which could lead to infertility, experts said.

The research was commissioned by VLCC, a lifestyle management organisation, to create awareness about the effects of obesity in the Emirates. The research was conducted and compiled by ExHealth, a healthcare consultancy firm. The results are aimed at exposing the perceptions and misconceptions associated with obesity in the region. It included responses from 750 individuals and 50 healthcare professionals.

Forum participants also discussed strategies to combat obesity. Among the strategies are addressing the underlying emotional issues that can cause people to gain weight, and the effects of people's surroundings on adults and children.

Issues should be explored on their own merits to help change the mindset of an overweight person, give them a sense of self-control, and ensure that sustainable weight loss is achieved, said Dr Melanie Schlatter, a health psychologist with the Well Woman Clinic in Dubai.

"We need to look at individual cases and not treat them as a statistical liability," she said.

Another misconception addressed by panellists yesterday is demonstrated in the survey, where more than 40 per cent of respondents did not feel they needed the help of a licensed professional such as a nutritionist to help them lose weight. Panellists said this might keep them from achieving their goals.

"It can be very difficult to lose weight, and we need to advise people on weight loss and maintenance based on their personal needs," said Dr Imad Ginawi, a diabetologist and endocrinologist at Dubai's Uptodate Medicare Centre.

The prevalence of obesity among Emirates residents in general is a major cause for concern, as it can lead to other noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, the experts said.

"One of the strategic objectives of the Ministry of Health is to reduce the prevalence of obesity in 10 years by raising awareness," said Dr el Badawi, who is also director of the National Project for Control of Diabetes.

"We address all age groups but especially children, because that is where behaviour starts."

Many people continue to think major lifestyle changes are needed to lose weight, a belief countered by the majority of healthcare professionals. The survey showed that 57 per cent of individual respondents apparently believed that such adjustments were required to lose weight, hindering their own ability to make progress.

Jeff Leach, an evolutionary anthropologist in nutrition, said that with 50 per cent of meals eaten outside of the home, the onus was on restaurants to provide more healthy food. "The problem is that we cannot just exercise our way out of this problem," he said. "We ate our way into this problem and we can eat our way out of it."