Study into how traditional Emirati food affects people’s glucose levels is ammunition in obesity battle

Traditional ingredients in Emirati cuisine are part of UAE culture, but they can be bad for health because of their high sugar content, Daniel Bardsley writes.

A traditional table offering lgeimat, a sago seed dessert. Sago seeds are popular in Emirati cuisine but have a high GI value, making people more prone to weight gain and diabetes. Antonie Robertson / The National
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No one who lives in the UAE needs to be told that poor diet and a lack of exercise are major concerns here.

These factors help to explain why as many as 19 per cent of the population has diabetes, putting the country 16th globally in terms of the condition’s prevalence.

A recent study indicates that traditional Emirati foods, such as types of fried bread, or sago seeds with ghee, may be contributing to the health problems from which many people in the country suffer, especially given the sedentary lifestyles that have become common.

“Before, even if people consumed such food, they were doing a lot of physical activity, like house chores, they were farmers, they were diving for pearls. But at this time, all we do is browse the internet, we sit behind a table in an office, we have cars,” said Dr Ayesha Al Dhaheri, the chair of the Nutrition and Health Department at UAE University and the lead author of the study.

Titled The effect of nutritional composition on the glycaemic index and glycaemic load values of selected Emirati foods, and recently published in the journal BMC Nutrition, the study looked at the glycaemic index (GI) of five traditional UAE foods.

The GI is relevant because it is a measure of how much a particular food increases the level of glucose in a person’s blood. A high blood glucose level after eating can cause people to feel hungry shortly afterwards, said Dr Al Dhaheri, as the blood glucose level then falls significantly within two hours of the food being eaten. This can lead individuals to eat again, and they often choose high-fat foods, which are particularly unhealthy.

In the study, 15 healthy young women were selected and asked to eat, on separate occasions, five popular local dishes obtained from restaurants in Al Ain. The meals included fried bread (sometimes known as “gurus”, and including wheat flour, vegetable oil, egg and other ingredients), flour with ghee (called “assidah”, and including wheat flour, sugar, ghee and other things) and sago seeds with ghee. The other two dishes were two types of bread with chicken stew, one known as “marqoqa” and the other “threed chicken”. After consuming each dish, participants had their blood glucose level tested at regular intervals. Also, as a reference, the women had the same measurements taken after consuming 50g of glucose dissolved in water.

The results indicated that all five foods had high GI values, ranging from 71.7 for gurus to 99.4 for sago. For comparison, pure glucose has a value of 100. Indeed, a graph showed that sago increased the blood glucose level of the participants almost as much as pure glucose did. The other GI values were 71.9 for threed chicken, 84.6 for marqoqa and 99.2 for assidah.

Dr Al Dhaheri, who completed the study with five colleagues from UAEU’s Nutrition and Health Department, one member of the university’s Department of Statistics and a researcher from Mahasarakham University, in Thailand, said she was “a bit surprised” with the results.

“We knew some ingredients of the food can affect the GI value but we were not sure 100 per cent that all of them would be of high GI value,” she said.

“All these foods ... they raise the blood sugar after consumption. The peak is sometimes at 30 minutes [after eating] and at another time at 45 minutes.”

When the GI values were converted into glycaemic load (GL) figures, calculated by multiplying the glycaemic index by the carbohydrate content of an individual serving, all foods were again classified as high.

It is no surprise that high GI foods can make people become overweight and cause them to suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Fortunately, however, the researchers also suggest there is no need for residents to give up the traditional foods they enjoy eating. Instead, they advise changing methods of preparation, and mixing in other foods, to make the traditional foods healthier and to lower their GI.

For example, vegetables tend to have lower GI values. Raw carrots have a GI of about 20, rising to about 50 when they are boiled.

“If you consume [a traditional food] with fruit and vegetables and yogurt ... it will be much better than if you consume the food by itself,” said Dr Al Dhaheri, an Emirati who has also published research on body image among young people in the country.

Also, Dr Al Dhaheri suggests eating smaller-sized portions and making modest changes to recipes. For example, a good step is to use wholegrain flour instead of refined flour.

Another option is to cook food for a shorter period, as longer cooking times cause the carbohydrate in foods to gelatinise more, which increases the GI.

This recent study of five foods is just the beginning of a major project, funded by the Emirates Foundation, that intends to analyse the GI values of more than 20 traditional dishes.

Once completed, it should offer valuable information that professionals who work in nutrition can use.

“We’re trying to conclude our research on another 23 traditional foods to be able to give this information to the practitioners like the dieticians, the nurses, the nutritionists who can use this information to educate the people about the types of food, and for them to be able to plan a diet for the local food,” she said.

Currently when dieticians give advice it may not relate well to local people and to their type of diet, said Dr Al Dhaheri. The hope is that, when they are provided with GI values for traditional Emirati foods, dieticians will find it easier to tailor their diet suggestions to locals and the types of dishes they enjoy eating.

“We have international tables for GI values of international foods and they are not the same foods that we consume here,” said Dr Al Dhaheri.

“If we have this kind of information about the nutritional composition of traditional foods, it will be much easier for the dietician to plan a diet for the local or diabetic patients from the local food items.”