Emirati women 'put image before health'

Women skip meals and do not get enough nutrients or exercise, a study finds.

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Some young Emirati women resort to extreme dieting or don't get enough nutrients, a study has revealed.

It was also found that many were not nearly active enough.

The study - by researchers at the University of Arizona and published in the American Journal of Human Biology - looked at the body mass index (BMI), body fat percentage and eating habits of 103 Emirati women age 18-30. Eighty were students at Zayed University, with the rest from UAE University.

They were categorised as underweight, normal, overweight or obese, according to their BMI - a measurement of body fat based on height and weight.

The results were a stark contrast to previous findings of high rates of obesity in the UAE.

Almost 29 per cent of the Zayed University students were underweight, with 46 per cent normal. At UAE University, 17 per cent were underweight and 35 per cent normal.

Sarah Trainer, the author of the study, said that in many cases, concerns over body image outweighed the women's interest in nutrition, and that some of their diets were "draconian".

"It was common for many women to skip meals, and this trend was worse in women who were overweight," she said.

This is not unique to the Emirates but "the difference in the UAE is that things are so extreme", Ms Trainer said. "The development has been so accelerated, and as a result the shift in food habits and lifestyle has been accelerated. Activity has been so radically altered in such a compressed time frame."

Dr Fatima Maskari, associate professor of community medicine at UAE University, also blamed social pressure. "Female students at this age are sensitive to messages presented in the media, regardless of nationality," she said. "This is an age group where body image determines a great deal of their actions."

The research found little link between obesity, socioeconomic status and conservatism, as measured by the women's abayas.

"Most of these women would wear regular clothes under their abayas, and abayas would be removed in all-women events," said Ms Trainer. "Many were also at an age where they were considering marriage.

"Universal access to health care for Emiratis also mitigated any correlation between obesity and socioeconomic status."

Social perceptions are not the only problem, according to Ms Trainer. The biggest challenge, both in the UAE and worldwide, is setting up an infrastructure that promotes a healthy lifestyle. She cited the lack of fresh, locally grown food as a factor.

"Imported food is not the same [in quality] as local produce, both in maintaining the nutrients and flavour," Ms Trainer said. "These are factors outside [the women's] control."

The lack of women-only gyms in Al Ain could also be a factor for the UAE University students, especially combined with their strict, regulated schedules. They are bussed from their gated hostel compounds to the gated central campus each day and are rarely allowed out.

As a result, they can only get to the gyms on the central campus or at the hostels, and eat in the dining halls there. They do not typically have access to outside alternatives.

But Ms Trainer said the authorities in the UAE and the wider region have one advantage that other countries lack - resources.

"They have the capacity to aggressively get behind these public health problems," she said. "It would be interesting to see how they choose to cope with these challenges."

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