x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

What's that your eating? What you don't know can kill

In Emirati culture, to be overweight in the past represented not how you looked as a person, but rather how prosperous you were or how fortunate you had become.

A man's weight has always been his own business. In Emirati culture, to be overweight in the past represented not how you looked as a person, but rather how prosperous you were or how fortunate you had become. After all, the desert could be cruel when it came to providing enough food. If your waist line extended further then most, you must have been doing something right. That is not to say that men could take obesity to the extreme without a reprimand from their fellow tribesman. The desert also demanded that men not be lazy and that they work hard to provide as well as any other. Yet, overall, a man would not spend too much time or thought on the size of his belly.

Times change, as they always do, but not in the direction that many would expect. Rather than adopt the international craze of men having to struggle endlessly to look like Calvin Klein models for the sake of social expectations, Emirati men have placed the importance of their health above looks as a reason for watching their weight. But over the part few decades, the UAE has witnessed an unprecedented rise in diseases related to being overweight such as high blood pressure and diabetes. The international press has recently reported on the unfortunate numbers, which show that one in four UAE nationals has diabetes - the second highest rate of diabetes in the world.

Ten years ago, with this catastrophe looming over the UAE, the Emirati government stepped up to the plate. Health awareness campaigns were launched across the country. Both the older and younger generations vigorously came forward to include exercising and healthy eating into their lifestyles and their children's lifestyles. But years later, the struggle continues and has become more difficult. More and more fast food restaurants and cafeterias in our cities, mainly targeting Emirati youth, have made it more difficult for Emiratis to keep their weight under control.

This realisation of the importance of health has led many Emiratis to begin trying different types of solutions for weight loss. It is not uncommon to hear about Emiratis joining others in taking part in dieting and body building. However, the success of their achievements and how long they maintain their pursuit of a healthier lifestyle depends on the society around them. This includes the restaurants and other food outlets that surround them.

One type of dining establishment that arrived in the UAE as a blessing many years ago when food outlets were scarce is now nothing less than a curse for Emirati youth. "Cafeterias" and small fast food outlets that offer a wide range of sandwiches that are ridiculously high in sodium, calories and fat are a popular source of meals for Emirati youth on the go. Unlike some other fast food chains, the contents and nutritional information of what these establishments offer is usually not identified. Yet, seeing the sandwiches practically dipped in mayonnaise and deep fried, it's not a stretch to surmise that their products are one of the main causes of obesity in Emirati youth today.

While many initiatives are being launched to educate the Emirati public about the importance of exercise and healthy eating, more can be done to communicate about the nutritional value of food that is consumed daily by a large number of Emiratis. There are thousands if not tens of thousands of cafeterias across the UAE where this type of education is critically needed. A study should be conducted to find which food outlets are visited most often by UAE nationals. Upon completion, a government-run programme could analyse and publish their findings of the ingredients of their menu items.

This will not be accomplished over night and will take vast amounts of resources and manpower, requiring the efforts of health delegations, nutritionists and international health authorities to ensure its success. However, this issue is not one that can be swept under the rug. The dangers of obesity are just as real as any other disease and they are creeping into the lives of a significant number of UAE nationals, both young and old. It is time to confront the main causes of this misfortune by taking a stronger stand towards control and prevention through public awareness.  

Taryam Al Subaihi is journalist from Abu Dhabi who specialises in corporate communications