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Sun 18 Mar 2012 09:40 AM

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Arab women and their fight to keep fit

As obesity rates rocket in the Gulf, Saudi sociologist Dr Mona Al Munajjed looks at the implications for the region’s female population

Arab women and their fight to keep fit
Fast food consumption is one reason for high female obesity rates in the Gulf region.

In many past civilisations, women were considered attractive if they were plump and rounded with voluptuous feminine curves. Being fat was a symbol of beauty and fertility and a source of pride.

Obesity reflected status and wealth because only the rich could afford to eat well. The ample wives of prosperous men stayed at home and performed their traditional role as mothers and housewives, while poor women were short of food, worked hard, and stayed thin. Nowadays, with the abundance of food and the shifting role of women toward education, economic participation, and employment, fatness has lost its spell and most people’s perception of what constitutes female beauty has changed to a model of slenderness.

Yet, today, in spite of new standards of beauty, people around the world are getting fatter. The percentage of people classified as overweight (exceeding in weight with a body mass index of 25 plus) or obese (very fat with a body mass index of 30 plus) has increased globally. And the situation in the GCC countries is especially bad, as overweight and obesity rates have shot up alarmingly during the past decades. In particular, women have become fatter than men in the region.

According to recent WHO data, the prevalence of overweight among GCC men in 2008 was estimated at around 78 percent in Kuwait, 73 percent in Qatar, 71 percent in the UAE and Bahrain, 69 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 57 percent in Oman. The prevalence of overweight among GCC women was almost similar to the rates for men: Kuwait 79 percent, the UAE 71 percent, Bahrain and Qatar 70 percent, Saudi Arabia 69 percent, and Oman 54 percent. Although Europe also suffers from an increase in overweight population the prevalence of overweight among women is much lower (United Kingdom 61 percent, Germany 54 percent, Norway 51 percent, France 45 percent, Switzerland 40 percent) and even more so in Asia (Malaysia 46 percent, Philippines 28 percent, Indonesia 26 percent, and India, twelve percent).

Obviously, overweight is now a serious problem in the Gulf region. Yet, obesity is even a more critical issue. WHO data for male obesity (20+) in 2008 were around: 37 percent in Kuwait, 31 percent in Qatar, 30 percent in the UAE, 29 percent in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and nineteen percent in Oman. But shockingly female obesity rates (20+) were much higher at 52 percent in Kuwait, 43 percent in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, 39 percent in Qatar, 38 percent in Bahrain, and 26 percent in Oman. And female obesity rates (20+) are also lower in Europe (United Kingdom 25 percent, Spain 23 percent, Germany nineteen percent, Norway eighteen percent, France fifteen percent, Switzerland twelve percent) and much more in Asia (Malaysia eighteen percent, Indonesia seven percent, and India two percent).

These high rates of obesity in the GCC countries are a major cause for concern, presenting a major challenge to society. The health risks of obesity are numerous. Being fat greatly increases the risk of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cerebral and cardiovascular diseases and cancer, all potentially fatal, as well as causing serious joint problems. According to The Economist (2012) the percentage of the population aged 20-79 with diabetes in 2010 is nineteen percent in the UAE, Saudi Arabia seventeen percent, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait around fifteen percent, and Oman thirteen percent. Lower percentages were found in other countries such as Malaysia twelve percent, Egypt and Syria around eleven percent. The costs of dealing with all of these diseases are enormous, putting great strain on health care services everywhere.

Overweight and obesity in the GCC are linked to various social and economic factors. As a result of oil wealth, the GCC countries have witnessed incredible socio-economic developments: high per capita income, lifestyle changes, rapid urbanisation, increasing number of supermarkets, and a shift to consumerism. This has been accompanied by a transition in nutrition, with diet more often based on fast food and an excessive intake of fats, meat, sugar, and carbohydrates alongside a deficiency in fruits, vegetables, and grains. However, is fast food consumption the only reason for women’s high obesity rates in the Gulf region?

It is undisputed that another major cause of obesity for both men and women is insufficient exercise, and this is particularly so for GCC women. Recent WHO data for 2008 indicates the high prevalence of physical inactivity for GCC women: 75 percent in Saudi Arabia, 71 percent in Kuwait, 68 percent in the UAE. (Estimates for men are better: Saudi Arabia 61 percent, Kuwait 58 percent, and the UAE 55 percent).  GCC women are very inactive compared to those in other countries; even in the USA, the figure is 51 percent. In Europe, inactivity rates range from 48 percent in Sweden to 36 percent in France and sixteen percent in The Netherlands, and the comparison with Asia is even greater (Indonesia, 28 percent, Philippines 26 percent, India seventeen percent). So, what is behind the high percentages of physical inactivity in the GCC countries?

There is no doubt that the harsh climate of the Gulf region characterized by high temperatures of heat, humidity and sand storms is not conducive to physical activity in the open air for anyone. Women rarely walk, mostly travelling by car. Tradition and culture in a patriarchal society also restrict women from moving freely outside the home and consider physical exercise as a male activity. Also, the influx of devices such as televisions, computers, and home appliances has encouraged a sedentary lifestyle. Moreover, most GCC women do not carry out domestic chores. Millions of low-cost foreign workers are employed in the region in manual jobs, working as domestic staff, chauffeurs, cooks, maids, housekeepers, and nannies. With all measures of comfort, and no reason to lift a finger to do housework, GCC women are simply not moving enough in their daily lives.

Like many of their sisters elsewhere GCC women want to be slim and many are looking for a quick fix to achieve this. Some turn to diet pills and medications, which at best have little long-term effect and at worst have harmful side-effects, sometimes even causing death. Other women opt for surgery, which can also lead to health complications. The only safe formula for reducing weight and keeping it off is sensible eating and regular exercise. There is widespread agreement that 30 minutes of daily physical activity facilitates weight loss and weight control. And perhaps more importantly, as well as burning calories, good health defined in terms of physical, mental, and social well-being increases with higher levels of physical activity. Even modest weight losses can influence obesity-associated diseases such as type 2 diabetes, where a six percent weight loss combined with increased physical activity can reduce diabetes incidence by 58 percent. And as a bonus, exercise boosts energy, enhances confidence and self-esteem, and stimulates healthier sleep and the ability to deal with stress.

Today, GCC governments are making efforts to combat the overweight and obesity problem through health awareness campaigns and the promotion of sport.

In Bahrain, the Third Arab Conference on Obesity and Physical Activity (2010) launched a strategy to combat obesity and promote physical activity in Arab countries. It made recommendations for the prevention and control of obesity covering many areas: schools, healthcare agencies, food companies, public benefit organisations, the workplace, and the media. In Saudi Arabia, a National Campaign against Overweight and Obesity has been launched by the Ministry of Health’s Media and the Health Awareness General Department, developing programmes for weight loss and increase in physical activities. In the UAE, the Ministry of Health launched a ‘No to Obesity’ programme including awareness lectures and physical training programmes for young Emiratis.

Other steps have been taken to promote female sports. The first Arab Women Sports Tournament for Clubs took place in Sharjah in February 2012; women athletes participated from twelve Arab countries including Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE. Competitions were held in athletics, archery, table tennis, volleyball, and basketball.

In Bahrain, the National Olympic Committee of Bahrain Women and Sport Commission has been developed, while the Women's National Football Team is the first in the region.

The Kuwait Women’s Sports Committee is headed by HH Sheikha Naeema Al Ahmad Al Sabah, head of GCC Women’s Sports Organizing Committee, who is working on developing various women’s sports in the Gulf region. She also presides over Kuwait Women’s Cricket Team.

In Oman, the National Women’s Cricket Team has participated in several tournaments and the Oman Women Sports Association endorsed Oman Sail’s national training programme Women’s Sailing Initiative. Four Omani women have been recruited to join the all-women crew of Al Thuraya Bank Muscat to race in Sailing Arabia the Tour 2012.

The Qatar Women Sports Committee promotes the participation of women in various sports, organising with the Qatar Museum of Olympic Sports a conference on Women and Sport: from Past to Future. The Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence includes three centres for young women to participate in handball, basketball, volleyball, table tennis, and gymnastics.

The UAE Women’s Sports Committee seeks to spread awareness of the importance of women’s sports and their participation in international championships. The National Olympic Committee is developing a comprehensive programme for women in sports in the UAE.

All of this good work must be developed further with more media health awareness campaigns against the overweight and obesity problem targeting both men and women. Undeniably, beauty is an asset, and although women today are taking on new roles, feminine physical attractiveness is still highly valued. GCC women spend considerable time and money on cosmetics, clothes, and plastic surgery to enhance their looks. But they need to become as conscious of their health as they are of their appearance. And there is nothing to beat the healthy glow of physical activity to make you feel and look young, slim and attractive.

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Hi.. Noted the Message..

My suggestion is that women should eat less and nutrition food according to their body and health requirement. They should not eat more and become over weight.. The thinner they are they look prettier and healthier..

Still it is upto them to decide.. My Good wishes to all women of the world..

Regards and Good Luck
Selwin Ilangovan - Dubai, UAE

Dr. Phil 8 years ago

Arabic dishes and recipes are naturally non-fattening for the most part. Very healthy food but now with the introduction to fast food, it has "consumed" the local populace. If I ever have a sinister craving for fast food which is rare, I notice that "most" of the people eating this fast food are local women. Emirati women and their children. I am noticing (usually in a mall) that these women, on average, are getting rounder and rounder. It's a shame because Emirati women have such natural beauty. To be fair, the local children that I see are much much bigger than any I have seen in other countries. Many UAE kids that I see are dangerously obese. What happened to eating cultural food? It's a shame. The adult men (yes, once again - for the most part)...that I've seen are usually slim and a lot seem to keep in good shape. I'm not sure what the trend is there that the women are large and the men are, usually, slim. Maybe its gender lifestyle. This fast food thing has to stop.

Calvin Pinto 8 years ago

It's called diet & exercise......a combination can benefit the fight against obesity in any society.

ved12 8 years ago

Eating more is not an issue but eating unhealthy food is the main problem in women. Many women are suffering from the problem of obesity and the main cause of this problem is eating unhealthy food. Exercise and diet make it easy to fight with the obesity. Overweight is also the cause of gestational diabetes and for the Gestational Diabetes Diet is the best way to control blood sugar level.

sana 8 years ago


there is a lot the government can do to promote the people (nationals & expats) to get more active. But sadly no steps will be taken and no importance will be given to anyones ideas after one cry from the locals.

Secondly, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have more options and variations, in terms of timings, types of acivities and costs, than other states in UAE.

Nevertheless, here are some ideas :

- free classes condusted by professional trainers as public service in associations, clubs
- more variety and options for sharjah, ajman ladies
- more set ups needed in other states
- kids care provided to facilitate mothers
- limit housemaids visa's
- lesser advertisement of fast food on roads
- regular events with nutrionists related to healthy living
-mandatory it for kids of all ages to join sports

Im sure everyone has ideas which can help further.

Lets hope someone actually does something about it over the mana'eesh they have with coffee today!


graça Andrez 8 years ago

Is not so dificult . Arabian Women are so beautifull , that I think if they want to be slim they can.
First of all, they must drink water and water .. is the best way to begin. And of course have conditions to prepare good dishes in other way...
Women , sometimes need help . I have a Medical Clinic, and we are experts in this field, in my country is the same, women needs
someone to care about health 's problem.

Best regards,
Grace Andrez