x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

We're passively allowing junk food to damage our health

The UAE needs to take a much more active approach to dealing with a growing public health issue

Residents of the UAE have an enormous range of interests, tastes, backgrounds and attitudes. But most of us come together in one place: at a fast food outlet.

Some people never go near those places, of course, but the vast majority of the UAE's people are considered to be "junkies". Almost 60 per cent of the population is below age 30, while wealth is concentrated in older age groups (as it is around the world). So young people turn to affordable eateries, located at eyesight distances in any metropolitan area in the country.

That's one reason we are not very nutrition-savvy, with a high rate of diabetes and an order of obesity on the side. And still our fast-food industry keeps growing. But why?

The new generation, much more educated than its ancestors, could be expected to lead a healthier life. But this concept clearly does not apply in the UAE. As proof, try browsing through photos of people in any UAE history book and then take a walk through a mall - or even a school.

One important factor is climate. Due to the year-round sunshine and seasonal humidity we tend to minimise outdoor activities. That means we should pay more attention to diet than people in countries with more physical activity in their cultures.

Technology should be helping us more than it does. The UAE is the headquarters for the world's third-largest port-terminal operator, DP World, and has major international airlines and airports. So why can't we import more high-quality fresh food and rush it to markets? We have the ability to support a much healthier diet, but are doing the opposite.

Considering Dubai's reputation as home to the tallest and the biggest, why don't we attract the provider of the world's biggest fruit salad, rather than the world's biggest pizza?

(Yes, I know pizzas and burgers can be healthy, with the appropriate ingredients and cooking methods; yet we all know that they rarely are so in fast-food restaurants.)

The main factor pushing many of us to fast-food outlets is financial; healthier alternatives are often higher in price. But if we managed to flood the market with healthy, high-quality options, competition could eventually push prices down.

Before that happens, we would start with an effective awareness campaign. As part of a long-term solution, schools may want to consider enhancements in the current health education system. From a young age, students need to be educated in a way that will empower them to make wise nutrition decisions.

As we build up to that, education officials could consider starting a joint task force to enforce strict guidelines on the quality of food served to students.

It may not be fair to point our fingers at the global fast-food chains, since we ourselves eventually control the market. The licensing of businesses is under official supervision. We are simply allowing this epidemic of obesity to occur.

One starting point could be regulations in which a ceiling is placed on fast food activity in the country. Naturally, all related indicators (population, food supply etc) would have to be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure the effectiveness of this approach.

As a young nation, the UAE is in a position to benefit from the experiences and previous developments of other countries. In certain other societies we can see the sad results of decades of overlooking national health concerns.

A healthy individual wakes up every morning with a feeling of confidence and satisfaction, and that feeling contributes greatly to the person's drive and ambition in his or her work.

Our leaders have set out their vision, to limit reliance on oil and transform the UAE into a mixed economy based on the efforts and hard work of thinkers and innovators.

The overall wellness of the society needs to be aligned and included in the government's strategy, since the good health of citizens - and everyone else - is so vital for achieving the UAE's long-term objectives. Essentially, each individual's diet is the first point of contact to achieve our long-term objectives.

The bottom line is that the UAE needs to take a more active approach to deal with a growing public health issue. We already have the means to become a much healthier society. Now we need long-term policies to reduce our excess enthusiasm for fast food which, tasty as it is, can be harmful to our health.


Mohammad Janahi is an Emirati social affairs commentator

On Twitter: @jna7i