Abu Dhabi doctors warn of 'disturbing rise' in obesity among teenagers during pandemic

Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi performed weight-loss operations on patients as young as 14 last year

Doctors say the fondness for fast food among young people has increased in the pandemic, while outdoor exercise declined. Getty

Doctors in Abu Dhabi have seen more teenagers who are obese during the pandemic, with low physical activity and the ease of ordering takeaway food a major factor.

Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi performed 450 weight-loss operations last year, including on patients between 14 and 18 years old.

While statistics for previous years were not to hand, medics said they noticed an increase, particularly among youngsters.

"There's plenty of evidence to suggest that the rate of obesity in the UAE remains stubbornly high," said Dr Javed Raza, a staff physician and surgeon at the hospital's Digestive Disease Institute.

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The rise in the number of patients is a sign of awareness that they need to get their health back on track, but it is also an indication of the scale of the problem

"What is worrying is that these numbers seem to be increasing among young adults."

It is believed the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation because more people stayed at home.

According to the Ministry of Health and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity among children between the ages of 5 and 17 in the UAE was 14.45 per cent in 2018.

The clinic's obesity programme is addressing the issue, however.

Patients with a body mass index above 25, and with risk factors for chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, are considered for the programme. Its youngest patients have been between 14 and 18 years of age.

“While the rise in the number of patients is a sign of awareness that they need to get their health back on track, it is also an indication of the scale of the problem, which needs to be addressed through more community education,” said Dr Raza.

“Last year added the challenge of homeschooling, fewer opportunities for outdoor activities and the convenience of food being delivered at the click of a button.

"The pandemic may not have caused the high obesity levels, but it did contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle in young people."

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October  14, 2020.  Stock images of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
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Patients in the obesity programme are cared for by a multidisciplinary team of endocrinologists, metabolic surgeons, nurses and dieticians. They are assessed and then given a lifestyle, medical or surgical plan, or a combination, based on their history, screening and preferences.

Medics assess all aspects of their well-being, including sleep patterns, cardiology, psychiatry, advanced endoscopy and gastroenterology.

A healthy lifestyle with plenty exercise is an important way to tackle obesity.

"We also have a patient support group, which used to meet physically but is now virtual due to the pandemic, for patients who have benefited from the programme and want to share their experience and encourage others to take action,” said Dr Raza.

Obesity has long been a problem in the Gulf. A report from 2020 showed rates reached a record high, with at least a third of women and a quarter of men now classed as excessively overweight in the region.

The figures were disclosed in a regional review of data compiled by the World Obesity Federation, which was critical of medics and health authorities for not making weight problems a priority.

Experts called on greater commitments to training and policies that eliminate weight-related prejudice and stigma.

Another key recommendation suggested a more holistic approach is taken to patient evaluation, going beyond BMI.

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