x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Residents fail to act on healthy lifestyle knowledge

A poll on healthy diets finds that junk food is shunned, but most say they do not exercise enough.

DUBAI // While people seem to be catching on about what it takes to be healthy, they do not necessarily live by that knowledge, a new survey has found.

At first glance, the results of a recent Al Aan TV survey, compiled by the Nabd al Arab (Arabs' Pulse) programme and carried out by YouGov Siraj, are promising.

More than half of the 757 UAE-based respondents (53 per cent) to the regional survey said they did not allow junk food in their homes, and the same number said their top choice for a snack was fruit. Two-thirds (66pc) of parents named fruit as the snack they preferred to give their children.

When asked if they dine healthily and pay attention to what they eat, more than four in five (85pc) said they did. Two-thirds (67pc) said they were aware that a sedentary lifestyle can cause diabetes.

However, most (55pc) admitted to not exercising regularly. Almost as many (49pc) - and even more Emiratis (63pc) - said they did not watch their fat and sugar intake.

This is not surprising, said Dania Bardaki, a nutritionist at a private clinic in the capital. The average person knows that a salad is healthier than a grilled chicken burger, she said, which is in turn better than a bucket of fried chicken.

"But there is no in-depth nutritional understanding among average people to know that not all salad dressings are equal, and that covering your fresh vegetables with Thousand Island dressing instead of a small amount of olive oil, for example, reduces that salad's health value to almost zero," she said.

After fruit, the most popular snack choices of those polled were biscuits (51pc) and light sandwiches (42pc).

Only one in five (19pc) said they would snack on vegetables, and barely one in eight (13pc) would snack on a cereal or energy bar.

"I'm surprised," said Ms Bardaki. "A bag of carrots and cucumbers is the best snack to take to the workplace or put in a child's lunchbox."

At 8pm tomorrow night (Sunday), Maysoon Baraky, an Al Aan presenter, will discuss the survey's findings in a special segment of Nabd al Arab that focuses on society's perception of diabetes.

"The survey's results are not concrete facts," she said, "but they are very indicative of how the community perceives a chronic disease like diabetes that affects one of every five people in the country, and how the average person understands it."

She said that despite the numbers showing that the majority of the population are health conscious and make healthy choices, "that does not necessarily mean people are being truthful when they answer the survey's questions".

"They answer as they do because they know what the 'right' answer is; they know how to live a healthy life," she said. That, said Ms Baraky, does not mean they actually do everything they should to be healthy.

"I know I shouldn't eat junk food more than once a week at most, or that I should exercise regularly, or not eat too late, but how do we realistically incorporate these rules into our lives?"

One goal of the survey, she said, was to confirm that people do know what they have to do to prevent diabetes or live healthily with the disease. "People need realistic solutions to incorporate healthy living in their busy, fast-paced lives.

"Don't tell me every working woman can provide a healthy, from-scratch meal for her family three times a day while keeping house and doing her job and caring for her family and finding time to exercise. People know what needs to be done, but they think it's too hard to do," Ms Baraky said.

Rima Hosni, 41, agrees. The Lebanese mother of three works full-time as a retail manager in Al Ain, and says taking care of her family's health and diet is another full-time job."I have to rely on the hope that the kids are getting the exercise they need at school, and we have a treadmill at home that my husband and I try to use regularly, but there is always an excuse not to exercise," she said. She says her hectic lifestyle forces her to depend on keen organisational skills to plan healthy meals and snacks for her family. At time, she cannot be bothered.

"It's so easy to pick up the phone and order a few pizzas and tell myself that since the pizza is not fried and has lots of vegetables on it then it's a better choice than fries and a burger," she said.

Christopher Schad, a 34-year-old from the UK who works in advertising, is a single man living in Dubai with a health club just five floors up from his one-bedroom apartment. "I exercise regularly, but I know my eating habits are terrible," he said.

Social obligations and work commitments mean he eats out nine times out of 10, he said, and though his weight may be ideal for his height and age, that does not mean he is healthy.

"I guess I always think to myself that one day I'll buckle down and make the choices that I know are healthier, but that day is always just around the corner."

hkhalaf@thenational.ae