Broad range of solutions needed to tackle obesity crisis
During a quick work trip to Riyadh, a few colleagues and I decided to dine out in one of the city’s newly opened restaurants. We were famished after a long day, and I was adamant on indulging. Opening the menu, I noticed that each food item displayed the calorie content, and suddenly felt judged for thinking of ordering the 1,500-calorie pear tart.
On Jan. 1, the Saudi Food and Drug Authority (SFDA), in partnership with the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs and the Consumer Protection Association, made it mandatory for all restaurants to indicate calorie contents on all food menus. The SFDA also requires menus to include information on protein, vitamins, minerals, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, total sugar and added sugar.
This regulation was enforced in an attempt to curb rising levels of obesity in the country and raise awareness of the nutritional value of dining out. Saudi Arabia (14th), the UAE (20th), Kuwait (11th) and Bahrain (25th) have all ranked in the Top 25 most obese nations in 2019, according to a report by the World Population Review. In the UAE, one in three children and 66 percent of adults are considered obese or overweight, according to data from the World Health Organization.
Countries and cities have taken drastic measures to tackle this growing epidemic. As of last month, Transport for London banned all fast-food advertising on their public services. This means that any poster that marketed food or drink high in sugar, fat or salt was removed from the London Underground and Overground rail networks, buses and some taxis.
While most health advocates and professionals have welcomed these measures, believing it will promote a heathier lifestyle, residents in both areas, whether in London or the Gulf, remain skeptical.
While most health advocates and professionals have welcomed government measures aimed at tackling obesity, many consumers remain skeptical.
Asma I. Abdulmalik
I stand with the skeptics. For starters, studies have shown that campaigns that stigmatize obesity usually alienate the targeted audience and nudge toward the opposite behavior. In addition, a study funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases that examined how the mandated displaying of calorie information on menu boards in fast-food restaurants in New York revealed that, five years after implementation, awareness of the calorie label declined and behaviors did not change. In fact, a different study published in 2012 by the American Journal of Public Health, noted: “Menu labeling seemed to lead to an increase in calorie intake because people bought more higher-calorie entrees, not fewer.” In addition, restaurants that display calorie content do not necessarily mean they are changing their food options.
While these are surely important attempts, it is not a silver bullet that will solve the more complex problem of obesity. It also distracts us from proposing evidence-based approaches, which may be more effective in practice. To tackle this epidemic, we need a multi-faceted approach that includes the participation of all stakeholders, as well as the hand of enforcement in favor of public health over big corporations. Such interventions have been implemented elsewhere and have proven successful.
In the US, taking smoking as an example, cigarette smoking among adults declined from 40 percent in the mid-1960s to 14 percent in 2017, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The US can attribute this success to strong policies, including raising the price of tobacco products.
The UK, on the other hand, banned smoking in public places and introduced graphic warnings on packs. The UK government went so far as to ban shops from displaying tobacco products, ban smoking in cars when children are present, and ban advertisements on TV. The comprehensive approaches in both the US and UK managed to successfully reduce the prevalence of smoking among workers and the general population.
Furthermore, and to be able to propose the right polices, it is necessary to first understand the targeted groups. This means that we need to understand the habits and consumptions of individuals based on ethnicity, age group, education level, household income level, and marital status, among others. Policy-makers have long assumed that more awareness would result in changes in behavior, but studies and trends have shown the opposite.
To increase cessation and reduce obesity rates, policies need to tackle all aspects of an individual’s life and incorporate all sectors. As such, some proven recommendations can include (but are not exclusive to) the following:
• Front-of-pack labeling that helps consumers make healthier food choices;
• Traffic light labeling schemes, with a green light indicating that this item is a healthy option;
• Banning the marketing of unhealthy food in public areas;
• Raising the cost of sugary drinks and high-calorie food;
• Subsidizing healthier staple foods;
• Mandatory physical activity in schools; and
• National guidelines for children’s meals on menus.
It remains to be seen whether these measures will actually have an impact on reducing obesity levels, especially with young adults, and succeed in changing the behaviors of individuals to make better food choices.
As a last thought, however, I did order the pear tart.
- Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues.Twitter: @Asmaimalik