Special report: Obesity rate in the UAE double the world average

Diabetes, often called the rich man's disease, is on the rise in UAE and there are about 1.8 million people in the country who either have diabetes or could suffer from it within a few years.

Walkers take part in the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre’s Walk 2014, at Yas Marina Circuit. Irene Garcia Leon for The National
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Obesity is on the rise globally and UAE is not faring well compared to other countries. More than 2.1 billion people—close to 30 per cent of the global population—today are overweight or obese, according to the World Health Organisation.


1- Medical experts warn of diabetes time bomb

2- Obesity in UAE twice world rate

3- Parents blame 'genetics' for plight of their children

4- How planners can give fitness levels a lift throughout the day


Medical experts warn of diabetes time bomb

ABU DHABI // A consequence of the prevalence of overweight and obese people is the high incidence of the disease associated with the condition – type 2 diabetes.

Data from the International Diabetes Federation to mark World Diabetes Day in November last year showed that there were 803,900 diabetics in the UAE, about 19 per cent of the population.

“We didn’t have this disease in this part of the world three decades ago,” said Dr Habiba Al Safar, an Emirati researcher who has found a genetic link to diabetes among her compatriots.

“Statistics say 19 per cent of people in the UAE suffer from diabetes, and this is a huge number. Imagine what it will be like in 2030. We need to take care, especially the younger generation,” she said.

Dr Mohammed Farghaly, head of insurance medical regulation at the Dubai Health Authority, estimated that 1.8 million people could suffer from diabetes in the UAE within a few years.

He said: “Diabetes is considered a major health issue in our community now, and the prevalence of diabetic people is increasing, which urges us to raise awareness about this disease.”

People must be aware that the disease can be avoided by losing weight, doing more exercise and eating a better diet.

Dr Farghaly, who is a member of the scientific committee of the International Family Medicine Conference, said: “Every year we insist on including the topic of diabetes in the conference’s programme.” Jane Griffiths, company group chairman of leading medical company Janssen Pharmaceuticals, said demand for diabetes medication and other drugs was rising in the UAE.

“In 2012, the UAE Ministry of Health estimated that the market size for healthcare delivery services in the GCC would jump from US$37 billion [Dh135.9bn] in 2012 to US$56bn in about six years.

“We aim to meet the growing demand for health care through our representation here in the UAE and across the wider Middle East region,” she said.


Obesity in UAE twice world rate

ABU DHABI // The obesity rate in the UAE is double the world average, according to a disease study report.

More than 2.1 billion people – close to 30 per cent of the global population – are overweight or obese, the World Health Organisation says.

And a study by the research company McKinsey Global Institute, Overcoming Obesity: an Initial Economic Analysis, published in November, predicts that almost half of the world's adult population could be overweight or obese by 2030.

However, according to a report entitled the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013, by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, more than 66 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women in the UAE are already overweight or obese.

“When we look at the global numbers, UAE does not fare well if you compare it to other countries,” Richard Dobbs, director of McKinsey Global Institute, said. “This is a substantial issue in the UAE and evidence suggests it is getting worse. The economic burden of obesity in UAE is US$6 billion [Dh22bn] annually.”

The study found that obesity is costing the world $2 trillion a year, nearly as expensive as armed conflict and smoking, the study found.

Viktor Hediger, director of McKinsey and Company in Dubai, called the obesity rate a “national crisis” and a “ticking time bomb”.

He believed, however, that the Health Authority Abu Dhabi (Haad) was working to tackle the problem.

“Haad has found that the obesity rate among Emiratis is higher than the average. The expatriates who come to the region have also been found to more than double their obesity and diabetes rates within five years, according to Haad.

“This is a national crisis. This is a ticking time bomb. Is there a commitment from the top to acknowledge this as a national crisis?”

The report suggested that labelling food clearly, restricting advertising for high calorie foods, educating parents, controlling portions and planning cities to make them exercise friendly could reduce the problem.

Prof Sehamuddin Galadari, an academic and research adviser at the Al Jalila Foundation, said: “The advertising of high-calorie foods should be banned.

“A certain bandwidth should be established. Over a certain level of sugar or calories they should not be allowed to advertise it. Thus, indirectly you are forcing producers to reduce the amount of sugar.”

Mr Hediger said: “This is something UAE should think about. Environmental factors, labelling, transport facilities all need to be included and it has to be a harmonised process.”

Prof Galadari, an Emirati, who is a professor of biochemistry, said: “As we have become a successful nation, we have developed as an economy. This has lead to a more sedentary lifestyle and more people suffering from obesity and diabetes. In a time of plenty, the body stores what it intakes.

“Unfortunately, our lifestyle is not helping. We use cars and drivers. The weather is not conducive to being active. We need to have a continuum of activities throughout the year and to address this in more detail.”

Family doctors should also form closer relationships with families and offer health advice.

With many families having maids, they too should be taught about health issues, said Mr Hediger.


Parents blame ‘genetics’ for plight of their children

ABU DHABI // Many overweight parents are unconcerned if their children are also too heavy, blaming genetics.

Kiram El Tbayli, a clinical dietician who has lived in the country for six years, said some overweight parents think because they are fat it is only natural that their children are also overweight.

“It is scary that people don’t take their kids who are overweight to doctors. They are not acknowledging that their children have a problem,” she said.

She said the problem was caused by parents not watching what their children ate.

“Young kids whose mothers are at work end up eating more processed food. They don’t know what they should be eating,” she said.

The problem of childhood obesity was first identified in the UAE in 2005, when a random sample of schoolchildren was found to be two to three times more likely to be obese than the international average.

Dr Evan Nadler, a paediatric surgeon at Children’s National Medical Centre in Washington DC, where the Zayed Institute for Paediatric Surgical Innovation is based, said the problem of overweight children in this country had not decreased.

“Studies suggest that between one third and half of all children in UAE are still overweight or obese,” said Dr Nadler.

“The UAE ranks among the highest obesity rates in the world, for adults and children, and unfortunately there are no great solutions to this trend on the horizon.”

Eating badly and lack of exercise were the main reasons for the problem, he said.

“There may be some genetic predisposition for children in the UAE, because the number one predictor of being an obese child is having obese parents, but certainly healthy lifestyle choices are needed,” he said.

“The biggest culprit is the sugary beverages that seem to be a staple in the Gulf. These empty calories do not trigger the brain to stop being hungry and lead to an enormous number of calories being taken in each day.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently called for all sugar-sweetened drinks to be eliminated from the diets of American children.

Doctors also believe that monitoring childhood obesity separately from obesity in adults is important.

“The data is hard to compare between children and adults, as the methods for collection and accuracy of the data vary. Since the vast majority of [obese] children go on to become obese adults, the incidence is pretty similar between the two,” said Dr Nadler.

Having healthy school meals was a good start to reversing the trend, he said.

“However, most children are only in school for about eight hours a day, and usually only eat one meal at school. Thus all of the good work being done by the schools can be undone if the child goes home and orders fast food with a large sugary drink as their after-school snack, and then eats a full dinner a couple of hours later,” he said.


How planners can give fitness levels a lift throughout the day

ABU DHABI // Making lifts less prominent in buildings and encouraging access to staircases would help to ensure people are active throughout the day, experts have claimed.

“Urban planning and building design need to be worked upon. This problem cannot be left out,” said Richard Dobbs, director of economic research company McKinsey Global Institute.

“The staircases need to be made more accessible and elevators out of the way. Whenever I travel to Dubai, I have noticed that the buildings are centred around the elevators. If you want to use the stairs, you have to find a back entrance and it is usually difficult to locate and is quite seedy.”

Mr Dobbs was involved in writing and producing a new study on obesity titled Overcoming Obesity: An Initial Economic Analysis.

“Authorities need to think of how obesity can be tackled within the given scenario,” he said.

Despite the country’s high temperatures, Mr Dobbs said people could still be encouraged to exercise.

Prof Sehamuddin Galadari, a research adviser at Al Jalila Foundation, said: “There need to be more places available for walking. Increasing the greenery helps as well. The urban place needs to become a healthy place. Municipality and urban planners can be involved.

“Design the cities and buildings such that they are not only environmentally friendly but also encouraging physical activity.”

He also suggested that health insurance companies encourage their members to work out.

“It is important to be physically active through the day. At work, at school, walk up and down the stairs and don’t use elevators. This helps to avoid physical and mental diseases.

“The more active you are, the happier you are. Moving about and doing things is better for mental health,” he said.