Obesity now 'normal' across the Gulf, major report warns

Experts call for change in approach to halt rising numbers of people experiencing rapid weight gain

An antibody drug has shown promise in helping obese people lose weight. AP 
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Obesity rates in the Gulf have reached a record high, a new report has warned.

At least a third of women and a quarter of men now classed as excessively overweight in the region.

In the UAE, 31 per cent of women in the UAE were obese and 25 per cent of men.

In Saudi Arabia, the figures were 31 per cent of men and 42 per cent of women.

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

Recognising obesity as a chronic, progressive and relapsing disease was imperative for Gulf nations to take hold of the health issue, it said.

Co-author Dr Sara Suliman, a Consultant Endocrinologist and Diabetologist at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Abu Dhabi, said the UAE was showing signs of progress.

“Standardising care for patients with obesity will help in recognition of obesity as a disease,” she said.

“It will provide a framework for appropriate management of obesity to try and prevent as well as manage long-term complications.”

Measured data relied on a sample of the population who had their weight and height measured.




In children, data showed 17 per cent of girls and 6 per cent of boys aged 5-19 were classed as obese.

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 the accepted Body Mass Index (BMI) and embracing the Edmonton Staged Approach - a metric encompassing other wellbeing criteria, including mental health.

It then identified strategies that should be delivered through primary, secondary and tertiary levels of patient care.

Similar obesity levels were reported in Saudi Arabia, where the World Health Organisation found 31 per cent of men and 42 per cent of women were obese, and 20 per cent of boys and 14 per cent of girls.

In Kuwait, 33 per cent of men and 46 per cent of women were obese.

The country had some of the region’s highest rates of childhood obesity, with a fifth of girls and one in four boys recorded.

Reducing the numbers has become an even more pressing concern during the coronavirus pandemic, as doctors reported overweight patients suffered worse symptoms.

More than 1,000 clinicians and health professionals will discuss their findings at a three-day programme later this year.

Experts noted several UAE initiatives had already proved a success in changing attitudes.

A 50 per cent tax applied in 2017 to all carbonated drinks and a 100 per cent tax on energy drinks were hailed as a positive move.



A school canteen guideline in Abu Dhabi and a national labelling of pre-packed food products, using a traffic light-based system were other signs of progress.

Former WOF president Dr Donna Ryan said Gulf healthcare communities should act now to address concerns raised in the report.

“The region is well positioned to address this major public health problem,” she said.

“It has good systems already in place, highly qualified health leaders and a commitment to improving the lives of local people.”

The Ministry of Health and Prevention’s ‘Mutabah’ system - an online system to collect data on overweight and obesity among students was noted in the review, as was an Abu Dhabi campaign to reduce sugar content in food by 20 per cent.

Another MoHP initiative, Ma’kom focused on four areas of improvement to reduce obesity.

To encourage a balanced diet, the scheme involved a junior chef initiative, a healthy lunchbox education programme and a voluntary healthy restaurant scheme.

It also started a healthy workplace initiative, a school-based programme and a mobile app to encourage children to adopt healthy lifestyles.

Meanwhile, a 10-week ‘Lose to Win’ programme encouraged childhood weight management by promoting an active lifestyle and healthy eating habits.

Bariatric surgeon at NMC Healthcare, Dr Nikunj Gupta, said more people had enquired about weight-loss procedures since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We have certainly seen a normalisation of obesity in society and more overweight patients because of the lifestyle we now have,” he said.

“Rapid weight gain causes a lot of problems in day-to-day life.

“People aged 18-25 are a large chunk of obese patients that we are seeing.”

Patients undergo a lifestyle test for diet, activity and any additional stresses that may restrict healthy eating or regular exercise.

According to the results, doctors plan a daily routine in an attempt to lose weight naturally over a six-month period.

“If that fails we advise certain bariatric procedures,” said Dr Gupta, who performs up to 10 weight loss surgeries a month.

“There has been an increase in bariatric surgery enquiries since the pandemic as people have changed their habits and put on weight, but surgery is always a last resort.”