Arab nations come together to tackle teenage obesity

As obesity becomes an ever-worsening regional problem, researchers gather to work on a strategy to promote better lifestyle choices.

MANAMA // The obesity epidemic is challenging malnutrition and starvation as a global public health problem, according to top regional nutrition experts who warned that Gulf nationals are among the worst affected. If the trend continues, young people in the Gulf region will be more susceptible to chronic diseases such as heart problems, diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure, which account for 50 per cent of premature deaths, according to the 400 experts gathered for a three-day conference aimed at formulating an Arab strategy to combat obesity and promote physical activity.

"Statistics indicate that obesity has surpassed starvation as a global problem with an estimated 1.5 billion people suffering from it worldwide - including poor countries, compared to 1 billion people suffering from malnourishment and hunger," Dr Abdulrahman Musaiger, the director of nutritional studies at Bahrain Center for Studies and Research, told the opening session of the third Arab Conference on Obesity and Physical Activity in Manama.

"Unfortunately there are no effective and comprehensive programmes to combat obesity in the Arab world, except for scattered attempts." Dr Musaiger added that chronic diseases associated with eating habits have become one of the leading morbidity and mortality causes in the Arab world, with obesity topping the list of diseases, as the rates of obesity among children and adults have doubled in the last two decades.

He pointed out that efforts to combat obesity and the various dietary schemes that had been proposed have failed so far to address the problem because of the multiple and overlapping causes for obesity. Dr Musaiger warned that it was not enough to just focus on healthy nutrition and physical activity. "There is health, social, psychological and physiological factors involved in addition to the dietary and lifestyle factors that need to be taken into account," he said.

"The home environment plays a major role in forming the proper dietary and lifestyle habits for the youth with the parents playing an important role instilling these habits in their children." The director of the exercise physiology laboratory at the Riyadh-based King Saud University, Dr Hazza al Hazza, said adolescents in the Gulf today are less active than their predecessors, which has worsened their health and contributed to the obesity problem.

He said adolescents living after the oil boom of the 1970s and 1980s have become less active and more prone to obesity because of this more relaxed lifestyle. "Children used to walk to school and grocery stores in the past, they used to play in the neighbourhood, but now due to the congested urban city environment they hardly carry-out these simple things," Dr al Hazza said as he presented his paper relating to obesity among adolescents in Saudi Arabia to the conference.

"They also now spend more time in front of the television and playing video games which involves less activity and this does not only apply to Saudi Arabia but to the Gulf states and the Arab world as well." He added that the Saudi youngsters and adolescents who used to be healthy and thin in the past, are now more likely to be less active and obese - the two main leading factors for heart problems according to a 2004 cardiac risk study for Saudi youths.

He also revealed that studies carried out in 2006 and 2007 showed that adolescents who walked more and those who walked to school were within their normal weight range compared to their peers who walked less. Dr Musaiger said that at the end of the conference, the Arab Teens Lifestyle Study (ATLS) project would be adopted to improve the health of youngsters and includes a strategy to combat obesity. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt will all take part.

ATLS was preceded by a study that involved 8,000 high school students in the autumn of 2009 in nine cities across the region, including Riyadh, Dubai, Mosul and Cairo, to measure the students' activity level, sleeping trends, eating habits, and obesity level. The figures showed that Kuwaiti and Saudi youths were the most obese among adolescents, aged 14 to 20, in the Gulf. Iraqi and Jordanian adolescents were the least obese, according to the ATLS figures.

The two projects mark the first time a joint Arab-strategy had been formulated to address the issue of obesity.