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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

UAE needs food labels to warn consumers against unhealthy choices, say experts

They suggested the UAE adopt front-of-pack labelling to tackle the country's obesity rates — which are twice the global average

Tacking calorie control is a major challenge. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Tacking calorie control is a major challenge. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Labels warning consumers how unhealthy some packaged foods are may help curb the UAE’s obesity rate — which is double the global average, experts have suggested.

Officials gathered in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, ahead of the Gulf Obesity Summit and Regional Congress 2018, and called for tighter regulations to combat the epidemic that affects 1.9 billion people worldwide.

Chief among the recommendations for the UAE was front-of-pack labelling, said Dr Doug Bettcher, head of non-communicable diseases at the Wold Health Organisation.

“Front-of-pack labelling comes in different forms but is a mechanism of clarifying with clear signs what is unhealthy and not healthy because the average consumer has a hard time understanding and differentiating between the quality of different foods,” he said.

Countries such as France, Chile and most recently the UK have adopted the method to deter people from purchasing food that is high in fat and sugar. The success of the tactic has yet to be measured.

“We don’t know yet the percentages of reduction of obesity but it helps consumers clarify more easily the types of food they are consuming — which foods are high in sugar, fat and salt,” said Dr Bettcher.

A tax on energy and sugary drinks introduced by the UAE in October was praised by the visiting experts but said more still needed to be done to address the country’s obesity problem.

An ambitious target to halt the rise of obesity in children and adults by 2013 was set by WHO two years before but trends appear to have gone on in the opposite direction.

“We have been tracking global trends for obesity and overweight around the world and over the last four decades, we can see that the prevalence of obesity has almost tripled so rather than halting the rise, we have a massive problem on our hands,” said Leanne Riley from the WHO.

A vast proportion of adults around the world now who are either overweight or obese.

“A staggering 1.9 billion people around the world are either obese or overweight,” she said

Of those, 650 million adults are obese — around 13 per cent of all adults or more than 1 in 10 adults aged 18 or older.

She said the picture for children and adolescents was no better with 340 million children and adolescents between the age of five and 18 currently either overweight or obese. A further 41 million children under the age of five are overweight or obese.

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Read more:

Obesity rates in women among the UAE's greatest public health challenges, say doctors

UAE parents' view of obese children unrealistic, study shows

Special report: Obesity rate in the UAE double the world average

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Of the 340 million, 121 million of schoolchildren and adolescents are obese — meaning nearly 1 in 5 children and adolescents are either overweight or obese worldwide

The UAE fares even worse still with the prevalence of overweight or obesity roughly double the global average at 35 per cent. Roughly 1 in 3 children or adolescents in the UAE are either obese or overweight.

Two thirds of all adults in the UAE are obese or overweight, she said.

Between 200 and 300 bariatric surgeries are performed annually at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City with the youngest performed on a 14-year-old.

The surgeries are considered an option for individuals with excess weight ranging between 43 to 45 kgs.

Dr Abdelrahman Nimeri, Chief of the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City said that a study showed that the number of bariatric surgeries from 2014 to 2016 had increased from 4,000 to 6,000 surgeries.

“Obesity is becoming a real problem not just here in the UAE but worldwide and what we want is to start the dialogue and to change the way we think about obesity,” said Professor Ian Caterson, President of the World Obesity Federation.

“We want to change the stigma surrounding obesity in many parts of the world and we want to get obesity into the UN high level meetings.

“We want to get obesity into universal health care systems so it becomes an issue which we prevent, which we manage and which we care for people of all ages.

“The department of health is interested; world obesity is interested but we need to work together.”