x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Poor diet and obesity reduce UAE life expectancy

Too often adults neglect their health and that of their children, contributing to the disease burden of the UAE.

Lateefa Al Mazroui was not surprised to learn poor diet and being overweight were among the main health burdens contributing to lower life-expectancy rates.

The Emirati nutritionist has seen too many cases of adults neglecting their health and that of their children, and said the study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington was further evidence it was time for a community-wide intervention.

"Parents are leading unhealthy lifestyles and this is also affecting their children," she said. "Children are given foods with high sugars, colours and additives, and as a result they become hyperactive and develop chronic diseases."

Parents must work harder to change their children's habits, Ms Al Mazroui warned.

"They should not give up, they must be persistent and think of creative ways to get their children to eat healthy food," she said. "Children like to eat something that comes out of a package, so you can pre-package their fruit and vegetables to make it more appealing."

The same techniques should also be taught to maids.

"Many mothers will teach their maids to grill food instead of frying," Ms Al Mazroui said. "But then when the children always complain and the food goes to waste the maid will resort to frying the food to make it more satisfying."

A food-centric society makes it difficult to change eating habits.

"In our culture it is considered acceptable to gain up to 15 kilograms, so we have really bad habits," Ms Al Mazroui said. "Pregnant mothers will use their pregnancy as an excuse to eat more and will find it very difficult to lose the weight after giving birth."

According to the study, most disease burden in the UAE is linked to high body mass index, an indicator of body fatness based on a person's height and weight.

A high body mass index is associated with cardiovascular and circulatory diseases, diabetes, and some musculoskeletal disorders.

Dietary risks are the second main risk factor, followed by high levels of glucose after fasting - an indicator of diabetes.

Risk factors were ranked based on their contribution to disability-adjusted life years - the number of years lived with a disability and the number of years lost because of premature death among the population in 2010.

Dr Ali Mokdad, professor of global health at the institute, attributed the results to rapid lifestyle changes and a shift to a more western diet.

"People are becoming less active and eating more food. Previous generations had less food and we were more physically active in the Arab world," he said. "These changes in behaviours are leading to this rise in obesity, diabetes and heart illness."

According to the study, a lack of physical activity is the fifth greatest risk factor, coming in after high blood pressure.

But Ms Al Mazroui said she was slowly seeing more attempts to stay physically fit.

"Most people are moving towards exercise - you can see mothers walking around the block and many people are enrolling themselves in gyms," she said.

"And when you ask them why they say it's because they want to improve their health, so the message is getting there but it's a slow process."