It’s time to tip the scale against Saudi Arabia’s obesity problem
Knowledge of human history – even at a very basic level – reveals at least one incontrovertible truth. Modernity has radically changed the way people live around the world. To a great extent, it has allowed people to live longer, healthier, more comfortable lives. That is due in large part to advances in medicine and the dramatic increase in food production and productivity that followed the Industrial Revolution.
However, it has also become clear in recent years that the changes in lifestyles and diet that have often accompanied modernity have had a deleterious effect of public health in many nations around the world. In fact, groups that evaluate health conditions around the world, including the World Health Organization, have warned repeatedly that this easier lifestyle and plentiful, easily accessible and highly processed food has led to a virtual pandemic of obesity around the world. That appears to be the case for adults but also increasingly for children. The Middle East region seems to have been particularly hard hit as evidenced by dramatic increases in the rate of obesity and diabetes, which is closely associated with obesity. Like most of their counterparts around the world, Saudis are now in the middle of fighting what has been termed the “battle of the bulge.” Whether they will triumph remains to be seen.
Saudi Arabia has undergone one of the fasted transformations in modern history, going from a sparsely populated desert to a moderately populated, relatively well-developed country with all the trappings of modernity. That includes high-speed highways, vast airports, advanced medical facilities and state-of-the-art communications networks. Along the way came the car, air conditioning, fast food restaurants, television, smart phones and the internet. All appear to have contributed to Saudis changing their lifestyles and eating habits. Generally speaking, they have become more sedentary as the population transformed from a rural to an urban one. It is estimated that as many as 35 percent of Saudis are considered obese. The Kingdom is also among the top 10 countries for the prevalence of diabetes.
While obesity and the diseases associated with it have struck with the vengeance practically everywhere modernity has found its way, studies conducted in Saudi Arabia to determine the socioeconomic factors linked with the increased rate of obesity appear to pose some difficult questions for healthcare providers and government officials seeking to tackle this problem. For instance, while many studies in Western nations have pointed to a link between low-levels of income and a higher incidence of obesity and malnutrition due to the relatively higher prices of healthier food, some studies in Saudi Arabia suggest that there might be a negative correlation between high incomes and obesity. One possible explanation is that high-income families might eat more often at restaurants, which often serve food that’s high in sugar, fat and calories. Perhaps more alarming, one study found a higher incidence of obesity in households where the mother works.
It is estimated that as many as 35 percent of Saudis are considered obese. The Kingdom is also among the top 10 countries for the prevalence of diabetes
Saudi healthcare professionals and officials at the Ministry of Health have launched several public awareness campaigns to stress the very adverse effects of a poor diet and lack of exercise. One such internet spot features sugar as a zombie-like creature who constantly tries to tempt his unwitting victims.
To be fair, like other nations in the Middle East, the predominantly hot climate in Saudi Arabia makes it more difficult to maintain an active lifestyle than is the case in many other countries. For instance, the relatively cool weather in Scandinavian countries makes it easier to run outdoors, bike on the many trails available or walk to many more places than a native of a sprawling city like Riyadh.
Some Saudi men argue that the long, flowing thobes they wear put them at a distinct disadvantage. The loose-fitting garment can hide even significant weight gain, lulling some men into a false sense of satisfaction. And while many have pointed the blame squarely at American “fast food" restaurants, Saudi desserts like the universally beloved kunafa – which I hear now comes with Nutella as a filling – have long been staples of many Saudis’ diets.
Like many of their counterparts around the world, Saudis have looked for various ways to win this uphill battle. Healthy food is now readily accessible in supermarkets, including low-sugar and low-fat varieties of practically every food. The same is true of restaurants, many of which also offer healthy options. At the same time, the Saudi Food and Drug Authority has pushed for restaurants to display calorie counts on their menus.
Gyms for both men and women have opened across much of the Kingdom and offer a host of classes, all promising to whip their members into shape in very little time. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, some Saudis have opted to undergo various surgeries that either excise the extra weight – liposuction – or limit a person’s ability to consume food by modifying the stomach, with gastric bypass being one such example. These surgeries have become so popular that even the Saudi Health Insurance Council has recommended that these surgeries be covered under some insurance policies.
While the recent increases in the rate of diabetes and obesity are cause for concern, there is also a sense of awareness among policymakers and the general public that a more healthy lifestyle is much more than a fad. It impacts a person’s quality of life in a major way.
- Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization. Twitter: @fanazer