UAE residents need to significantly up their fruit and vegetable intake after the country scored poorly in a major global study on healthy eating, medics say.
Many of the unhealthy dietary habits highlighted in the latest research are commonly seen in the UAE, according to top public health expert Dr Abdishakur Abdulle, the associate director of the Public Health Research Centre at New York University Abu Dhabi.
Published in the medical journal The Lancet and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the research says that around 11 million deaths each year globally, or one in five of the total, result from an unhealthy diet.
The work was carried out by more than 130 scientists from around the world and has generated particular interest because of the finding that poor diet kills more people than smoking, which has a global annual death toll of eight million.
Another finding is that not eating enough healthy foods, such as whole grains and fruits, is a bigger cause of death than eating too much unhealthy food, such as sugar and certain types of fat.
Among the 195 countries looked at, the UAE is in the second-from-worst category in terms of deaths annually from poor diet, with between 313 and 397 people per 100,000 of the population estimated to die each year because of unhealthy eating.
In some countries, such as Japan, France and Spain, fewer than 105 people per 100,000 of the population die annually as a result of poor diet.
Dr Abdulle, who was not involved with the study, said that many of the research findings were relevant to the UAE, because key dietary bad practices that have been highlighted – particularly eating too much salt, and eating too little whole grains and fruit and vegetables – are prevalent here.
“The findings of this article are absolutely timely and very important for this country and elsewhere in the region,” he said.
He said the study “highlights important dietary risk factors amenable to change”.
“A recent article on adolescent eating behaviours reported that only 28 percent of the participants met the recommended daily fruit and vegetable intake,” he said.
“We also know that diets rich in fruit and vegetables are high in potassium and are shown to be associated with favourable health outcomes. Equally important, high potassium, mainly from fruits and vegetables, may limit the adverse effects of sodium [salt] consumption.”
Poor diet is partly the cause of the UAE’s high rates of cardiovascular disease, which is reportedly responsible for about one in three deaths in the country. This is a much higher rate than in many other countries, among them the United Kingdom, where official figures show that heart disease causes one in nine deaths.
The paper in The Lancet has been produced as part of the Global Burden of Disease Study, which is based at the University of Washington.
Of the approximately 11 million deaths caused by poor diet each year, it found that about 10 million involved cardiovascular disease, while 900,000 involved cancer and approaching 340,000 were the result of type 2 diabetes.
Dr Abdulle said that it was important to carry out further research locally to better understand the effects here of dietary risk factors on heart disease and diabetes, the latter of which affects about one in five of the UAE population.
The UAE has been carrying out its own comprehensive research into public health, the UAE Healthy Future Study, which aims to involve 20,000 Emirati participants and will look at, for example, risk factors for heart disease and diabetes.
“The Public Health Research Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi is currently leading a major national study, the UAE Healthy Future Study, in collaboration with many other academics and non-academic national institutions to provide answers to these specific questions,” said Dr Abdulle.
Milda Al Hawari, a nutritionist and dietician at the CosmeSurge clinic at Julphar Towers, Ras Al Khaimah, said that many people in the UAE ate junk food “to deal with mood swings and stay happy”.
“They fail to understand that wrong food choices now can lead to long-term health problems like cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes,” she said.
She said many unhealthy foods, such as pizzas, burgers and chips, which are high in calories, fat and sodium, “have no nutrients required by the body for its essential functions”.
“It is vital to choose healthy food from all food group such as vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, low-fat milk [and] seafood,” she said, saying these foods were high in vitamins and healthy forms of fat.