LONDON: Arab children are among the most obese on the planet according to a new study published in the Lancet.
The world-famous medical journal revealed that roughly one in five kids in the region are obese.
The findings are part of a vast study using more than 40 years of data.
As many as 19.7 percent of Saudi boys are classified as obese — compared to just 1.3 percent in 1975. About 14.2 percent of girls in the Kingdom are thought to be obese compared to 1.2 percent in 1975.
There is a similar picture in the UAE with 18.5 percent of boys described as obese and 14.7 percent of girls.
More than 19 percent of Egyptian girls are also considered obese compared to just 2 percent in 1975.
The Middle East recorded one of the largest absolute increases in the number of children with obesity. Back in 1975, the starting point for the study, the prevalence of obesity in children across the region was less than 5 percent.
The number of obese children and adolescents globally rose to 124 million in 2016 — more than 10 times higher than the 11 million classified as obese 40 years ago, in 1975.
Dr. James Bentham, one of the authors of the study, said that the increase could be put down to a rise in unhealthy lifestyles and people becoming less mobile.
“What we’re seeing is that in middle-income countries like those in the Middle East, Latin America, China, South Africa, the rates of obesity are going up much more quickly than in high-income countries like the US and France,” he told Arab News.
“We know that it must be due to a combination of more calories being consumed and less activity.
“There’s been a general move globally toward carbohydrates and sugar, and toward larger portion sizes. At the same time, car ownership has gone up hugely over 40 years in the Middle East for example — this means that people are doing far less exercise.”
Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have hiked taxes on sugary drinks this year in an attempt to tackle a region-wide obesity epidemic.
Worldwide, there has been a more than ten-fold increase in the number of children and adolescents with obesity in the past four decades, increasing from five million girls in 1975 to 50 million in 2016, and from six million to 74 million boys.
Due to the link between childhood obesity and illness late in life, Bentham stressed the need to combat the problem, emphasising that it would not be easy.
“The lesson is that there is a serious obesity problem (around the world). We need to make unhealthy foods less attractive — this could be by putting taxes on them, restricting advertising, and through public information campaigns,” he said.
“At the same time, we need to make health food attractive — this could be through subsidies, for example.
“We hope that people will act, given how serious childhood overweight and obesity is for these children’s futures.”