The growing obesity epidemic should be tackled

Obesity education must start early with responsible behaviour

March 4, 2009 / Abu Dhabi/ Zahwa el Said, 4,  enjoys food from Popeyes in Abu Dhabi Mall March 4, 2009.  (Sammy Dallal / The National) *** Local Caption ***  sd-030409-fastfood-09.jpg
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The "Dubai stone" might be a tongue-in-cheek way of referring to the battle to stay fit and healthy in the face of countless dining and delivery options in the UAE but at its heart is a serious message. Two-thirds of adult residents are overweight or obese, double the global average, and about one-third of five to 18-year-olds, signifying a worrying trend that needs lifesaving action. Experts elaborated on the growing crisis at the Gulf Obesity Summit and Regional Congress in Abu Dhabi last week, following from the Abu Dhabi Child Obesity forum last December. Worldwide, 1.9 billion people are obese, exposing them to serious health risks and overburdening healthcare systems.

The problem here goes hand-in-hand with the country's rapid economic rise. Precipitous urbanisation where the car is king has ushered in a technology-driven, sedentary lifestyle, as Khaled Alawadi, curator of the UAE's National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, told The National. A high level of customer service means almost everything can be accessed from your couch by phone or app while many residents work hard, often sitting behind computers screens all day, and spend big on decadent, calorific meals out with their earnings. Long, hot summers ruling out outdoor activity exacerbate the problem. Inactivity coupled with sugary drinks and a proliferation of fast food outlets are all the ingredients needed for this epidemic.

But that does not excuse inaction. Obesity is a factor in diabetes, cancer and heart disease. For young children, obesity is a cycle not easily broken. The first step is to educate shoppers, whether that is with clearer labelling, higher visibility for information on fat and sugar content, often obscured in the packaging process by stickers, or even introducing a scheme similar to the UK's traffic light system, where nutritious items are marked green and fatty foods and ingredients red. Beyond modifying dietary habits, people should be encouraged to take the stairs and exercise more. More pedestrianised routes and greenery would help. Ultimately, obesity education must start early, in schools, with parents and by example.