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Sun 1 Jul 2007 12:00 AM

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Beating the fast food fad

Restaurants region-wide can help reverse the casual dining trend and help change diners' eating habits.

As the globe becomes smaller and brands expand to become international companies, for the catering industry this means a rise of casual dining and fast food outlets springing up at every opportunity.

For these companies it is a huge market with plenty of money to be had. But for the diner it can spell bad news; they can fall into a trap of eating out and over-indulging in convenience food. Reports from the World Health Organisation show obesity levels are soaring in the region, in part due to a lack of exercise, but also due to changes in lifestyle.

The Imperial College London's Diabetes Centre Abu Dhabi has also expressed concern over the rising numbers of diabetes cases, and a recent report carried out by the International Diabetes Federation 2007 stated that the UAE ranked the second highest worldwide for diabetes prevalence, followed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait.

It is a worrying statistic, and while fast food outlets will continue to serve up the same dishes, there are a number of casual dining outlets that are rebuking the trend and offering healthy alternatives, including organic produce, salads and homemade burgers, instead of deep fried dishes.

But changing diners' eating habits is no easy task, and while fast food outlets can largely be blamed for the bulk of the problem, restaurants region-wide can help reverse the trend. There are a number of ways this can be done. Firstly, traditional French-style restaurants that use rich foods can offer low-fat alternatives, and instead of layering a salad in dressing, using olive oil or serving the dressing on the side means diners are in control of how much they use.

When it comes to meat, the Middle East uses vast amounts of red meat, but a healthier alternative would be to use ostrich or kangaroo. Already used in some outlets they are healthier than most other meats and again, offers diners that something extra. Most of this is basic knowledge and something that most chefs should already be doing, but a restaurant is a business and needs to retain guest interest and unfortunately, part of this is through offering popular and sometimes unhealthy dishes.

Instead, perhaps outlets should flag up and promote healthy items, and in some cases, include comments on the nutritional content of a dish in order to create greater awareness.

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