By Melissa Hancock
What can be done to help the fattest region in the world, asks Melissa Hancock.
When describing the lifestyle and events within the Middle East, we tend to find ourselves using superlatives: The tallest, the wealthiest, the richest and, more recently, ‘the fattest'. That an obesity epidemic is sweeping across the region is backed up by an increasing number of medical reports. In February this year, Forbes compiled a list entitled ‘The World's Fattest Countries', based on the percentage of overweight individuals aged 15 and over who have individual body mass indexes (BMIs) greater than or equal to 30 (the definition of obesity).
Middle Eastern countries' high ranking on the list is a measure of how big the obesity problem has become for the region. To many people's surprise, Kuwait weighed in ahead of the US at number eight with 74.2% of those surveyed classified as overweight. Of the remaining GCC countries, the UAE followed at number 18 with 68.3%, Bahrain ranked 26th with 64.1%, Saudi Arabia ranked 29th with 63.5%, Qatar in 36th position with 61.0% and Oman in 110th position with 45.6%. That the GCC currently holds the highest obesity growth rates in the world - even higher than the US - can be explained by the region's largely sedentary lifestyle, which is traditionally characterised by a severe lack of exercise, and at the same time extremely poor dietary habits.
Research carried out between 2002 and 2007 by the Prince Sultan Cardiac Centre, one of Saudi Arabia's most advanced hospitals for heart disease, showed that 36.9% of all Saudis are obese, and almost three quarters (72.5%) of Saudis over the age of 45 are obese. Another joint study carried out in January 2007 by the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre (KFSHRC) and the Ministry of Health, showed that 45% of Saudi women and 23.5% of Saudi men are obese.
Such an alarming rate of obesity indicates the need for an overall change of lifestyle trends as well as dietary habits within the kingdom, which produces and eats more junk food than any other country in the GCC. The total processed snack food industry in the GCC is worth around US$8.3bn per year. However, efforts are being made to battle the bulge. The UAE Health Ministry, GCC Council of Health Ministers and the World Health Organisation (WHO) met earlier this month for a three-day workshop to devise a strategy to combat the mounting levels of obesity in the region. This year's Wellness and Spas Trade Fair hopes to tackle the problem through its dedicated section aimed at fitness and exercise.
"Obesity is becoming a real issue for the 4.3 million people living in the UAE, 80% of whom are expatriates," says Susan Amin, Wellness & Spas Middle East Exhibition Manager, "Figures indicate that 60% of Emirati nationals are overweight and this figure is broadly in line with the obesity levels within the expatriate community." However, according to Amin, the personal fitness market is starting to take off. Also encouraging is the huge growth in the health market on which the current regional spend is estimated at US$74bn. VLCC, one of the leading weight management companies in the Middle East, has announced a new strategic expansion plan throughout the region worth US$27.2m.
With obesity reaching such epidemic proportions in the region, it is clear that we need to take a more aggressive approach if we are to save future generations from a far poorer quality of life. The consequences of ignoring obesity are increased levels of serious illness, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and rising health costs. After years of promoting healthy eating to dampen demand for junk food, it is time we started examining what can be done on the supply side, by demanding the cooperation of food producers.