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Middle East suffering from obesity and under-nutrition at same time, conference is told

At a conference in Dubai, experts on nutrition explore a conundrum: bad food habits are typified by both an excess and a deficit

DUBAI // The government, food industry and the public need to help fight the growing problem of obesity in the UAE, nutrition experts said yesterday. At the annual form of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (Gain), convened for the first time in Dubai, the experts said there is a "double burden" of malnutrition in the Middle East: obesity concurrent with undernutrition.

Mohamed Mansour, Gain's regional manager, said: "The problem can only be addressed by partnerships with governments, organisations, civil society and the private sector." He said "micronutrient deficiencies" ? where a person is deficient in particular vitamin or mineral ? are particularly common in the region and need to be tackled. Participants at the forum said the UAE Government, the food industry, civil society and the public must all play a role in finding solution to the nation's obesity problem.

This week, a government report revealed that 35 per cent of children in the UAE aged between six and 22 months are anaemic, while 41 per cent of Emirati women in the country have folic acid deficiency and 35 per cent of Emirati women are classified as obese. One solution, according to Gain, could be to produce healthier foods, through fortification of staple items, such as flour and oil, with vitamins and micronutrients including iron, folic acid and zinc.

Gain's chairman, Jay Naidoo, said people can be obese and malnourished. While there is no outright hunger in the UAE, there is a "hidden hunger", with some people not getting the right nutrients. Mr Naidoo described Gain, an alliance established in 2002 and aimed at reducing global malnutrition, as a catalyst which works with local partners in countries around the world, both in the public and private sectors. "We would like to work with the UAE in understanding how to tackle the challenge that they face on obesity," he said. "It's phenomenal to see that the Government here has taken the lead on the matter."

The private sector is also a huge part of the solution, according to Mr Naidoo, who added there were already some companies in the local food industry that are "committed" to the cause. Saleh Lootah, the managing director of Al Islami Foods and a speaker at the forum, said the local food industry, along with the Government, has started addressing the problem of obesity and unhealthy eating habits. "It really is a big issue we all have to work together on, not only the families, not just the Government, but everyone," he said. "It's important to think about how we can take care of what a child is eating from day one."

Mr Lootah said that halal food, which his company produces, does not only mean that it has been prepared according to Islamic tradition. "It is not halal to sell something to a child that may harm him in the future," he said. "The food industry has to take more responsibility." According to Martin Bloem, the chief of nutrition and HIV/AIDS policy at the World Food Programme, there is only a small window of opportunity to ensure that children are provided with the right nutrients. He said the first 1,000 days, from conception to the age of two years, are crucial. According to Mr Naidoo, ignoring the nutritional needs of pregnant women and children under two can be linked to problems of obesity later on, which can lead to problems such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

"Part of the problem of obesity later in life is the problem of undernutrition when you're young," he said. "If we don't deal with it in that period it'll be too late, the boat has left." Folic acid, iron, zinc and vitamin A are vital to ensuring a healthy pregnancy, according to Mr Naidoo, who also stressed the importance of breast-feeding in the first six months. "Dealing with the mother and the child are at the centre of a nutrition strategy," he said. "We have to reach them and target them as a priority."

The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2015 more than 700 million adults will be classified as obese. At the same time, more than a billion people are going hungry. @Email:zconstantine@thenational.ae

Published: May 26, 2010 04:00 AM

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