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Saudi Arabia losing battle of the bulge

JEDDAH: One-third of the Saudi population is obese. And if the trend of minimal physical activity mixed with the proclivity to eat cheap processed food continues the pounds will only pile on.
But Saudi Arabia is not alone, as every country worldwide is experiencing a spike obesity rates.
The startling data comes from a group of health scientists, who recently released a single study published by the Lancet Medical Journal that compiled data from 1,698 studies in 186 countries and 19.2 million participants.
The study, which uses the standardized Body Mass Index (BMI) chart to determine the average weight of men and women, covers obesity rates from 1975 to today.
It found that if the trend in rising obesity continues, an estimated average of 18 percent of all men and more than 21 percent of all women would be obese by 2025. Severe obesity will surpass 6 percent in men and 9 percent in women.
The study also found that Saudi Arabia had an obesity rate in 1975 of 14.2 percent of the population. Today it is 33.5 percent, second to Qatar in the Gulf region, which in 1975 had a 14.9 percent obesity rate that mushroomed to 36.9 percent today.
In contrast, Japan had a rate of 1.1 percent in 1975 and 3.3 percent today. North Korea barely budged, recording a 1.6 percent rate 41 years ago and now is recorded at 2.8 percent.
Wejdan Kutb, a dietician at the Maroom Medical Center in Jeddah, said it has only been recently that Saudis became aware that obesity could be dangerous.
“The lack of awareness about the risks of obesity among people is a contributing factor,” Kutb said. “Many believe that obese people struggle psychologically and appearance-wise. However, people used to be unaware of the diseases that accompany obesity, such as heart diseases, diabetes and blood pressure. Now, awareness started to increase in our society.”
As alarming as the Saudi Arabia’s figures are, the study provides little context in what leads Saudis to gain so much weight.
The climate alone, often exceeding 35 degrees centigrade on many days year-round, is a major contributing factor to people living a sedentary lifestyle with few opportunities aside from the gym to get exercise.
“Living in Saudi Arabia plays a role in the growing proportion of obesity due … high temperatures and lack of transportation accessibility to everyone, and the lack of health clubs in all districts,” said Jeddah dietician Vivian Wehbe.“Not all women can provide drivers to join the gym and this causes hindrance in keeping their bodies fit.”
Dr. Rowaidah N. Idriss, executive director of the Nutri Life Center for Healthy Meals, said the food industry has changed dramatically over the decades that has contributed to the epidemic.
She said that food was once produced or planted by families, which has since evolved in manufactured foods containing an abundance of sugar, salt and artificial flavors.
“Even the agriculture and livestock industry are affected by genetic engineering and antibiotics and hormone injections, which led to messing up the hormones in the human body, and therefore, affected people’s weight significantly,” Idriss said.
The lifestyles among Saudis changed as well, she said. Families, once dependent on physical activity to perform household chores, have now given way to machines and housekeepers.
Dr. Idriss also said that electronic devices and snacking go hand in hand. Television was once relegated to a specific time of the day, but 24-hour programming encourages people to spend more time in front of the screen while eating more snacks for a longer period without engaging in physical activity, she said.
Perhaps a more subtle form of generating maximum profits is the strategy to offer “super size” meals to fast-food customers by selling a larger drink and larger order of french fries for a few extra riyals. McDonalds led the fast-food industry in super-sizing meals, but phased out the incentive to buy and eat more in 2004 to simplify its menu and because it was receiving intense pressure from nutritionists.
Yet super-sizing has not quite left fast-food menus in many restaurants in Saudi Arabia.
“Attractive offers provide an opportunity to eat larger amounts of food that exceed our body’s needs,” said Idriss, adding that cheap food has made it affordable for people to purchase more.
While Saudis are becoming more aware of the health hazards associated with obesity, their knowledge is still lacking.
There is a misconception among people that the sugar they consume will be burned once they exercise, Kutb said.
However, carbohydrates and sugar turn into fat once they enter the body and it’s difficult to burn it off.
Kutb sees encouraging signs, though.
“The consumption of dates in our communities is very, very high,” she said.
“However, due to our awareness nowadays, people started to consume less amounts or at least eat them as a whole meale like at breakfast with milk or yogurt to form an integrated meal.”

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