KUWAIT CITY // Kuwait is growing fast - but unfortunately for Kuwaitis, it is not the country's economy that has become one of the largest in the world; instead, it is the average citizen's waistline that is topping international rankings.
And while the influx of western fast-food restaurants in recent years has no doubt added to the country's growing obesity problem, a dietician is hoping that another western import can help reverse the trend. Ahmad al Haifi, an assistant professor at the College of Health Sciences, will film a pilot on Saturday for a reality television programme that will follow 20 young Kuwaitis as they try to lose weight.
"This is the first time this has been tried in the Gulf," Mr al Haifi said at a "weigh-in" and lecture for hopeful contestants this month. "The aim is to reduce about 10 to 20 per cent of the excess body weight within six months for the obese adolescent boys - this is the main goal." The programme will not sequester the contestants and weigh them off against each other every week, as in the US television programme The Biggest Loser. Instead, cameras will follow the boys in their daily lives, with dieticians monitoring their progress and educating them, their friends and their families on the best ways to slim down.
Mr al Haifi hopes to use the pilot, which has "ethical approval" from the ministry of health, to strike a deal with one of the major television channels to air a 13-programme series. To encourage the boys, the show will consult dieticians and "celebrities" for their advice and prizes, including "maybe a car", will be awarded to the most successful slimmers. The idea has generated a lot of interest from the country's overweight youth and more than 100 turned up to Mr al Haifi's lecture. He said the programme's strategies include pinpointing the causes of obesity, identifying where the calories are coming from, co-operating with friends and monitoring weight-loss.
"I'm so fat, and I want to be smaller," said Mohammed al Moumen, a 15-year-old who weighs 95 kilogrammes, at the lecture, where teenagers hoping to be selected filled in forms about their eating habits and got weighed. "Maybe I'll have health problems in 20 years. I eat junk food every day and I never do any exercise. This is a real problem with the youth of Kuwait." Some parents encouraged their children to apply. Hussein al Sayer brought his son, Ali, 17, who weighs 103kg. He said he liked the programme because the diet is supervised by experts and "takes it easy on the children".
"Ali sits and watches Real Madrid and Barcelona play football on TV, but he doesn't play himself. The internet and the PlayStation have affected all children in Kuwait. Twenty years ago, you had to do sport because there was nothing else to do," Mr al Sayer said. Development spurred by Kuwait's oil wealth has left the city unrecognisable to the one Mr al Sayer would have known as a boy. International companies have been drawn by the region's wealth, and Kuwaitis have often received them with enthusiasm. When the first McDonalds opened in 1994, it was reported that 15,000 people and a seven-mile-long queue of cars waited to be served.
Sami al Bader is a dietician with Diet Care, a health-food company that has run the Get Healthy Kuwait programme in co-operation with Taiba Hospital since June. The programme tries to raise awareness of obesity and related conditions with a roadshow providing free body-fat analysis and tests for diabetes and cholesterol. "It's as bad as it can get anywhere in the world," Mr al Bader said. "Around 80 per cent of Kuwaitis are overweight or obese and around 26 per cent have, or will soon have, diabetes."
The World Health Organisation (WHO) ranks the percentage of overweight and obese Kuwaitis over 15 years old as the eighth largest in the world, one place above the United States. Other Gulf countries rank slightly better but are mostly at the unhealthy end of the table. The UAE is the next most overweight Gulf Co-operation Council country, placed at 18. Bahrain is placed 26, Saudi Arabia, 29 and Qatar, 36. Oman is the only country within the bloc with a relatively good rank, at 110.
Mr al Bader said the region's harsh weather encourages people to stay indoors and travel in their cars, and Bedouin traditions encourage people to eat more. He said WHO studies prove that obesity is a growing problem in Kuwait, especially with the youth. "Our lives revolve around food. If I visit my family today, I'm going to be given seven or eight plates of food. If I visit my friends after that, I'll get another seven or eight plates," he said.
While traditional food may have been healthier in the past, the modern equivalents are just as fattening as the western imports. He said people socialise in restaurants that serve meals packed with twice as many calories as their home-cooked equivalents and "a shawarma is just as bad as a Big Mac in terms of calories and fat". It will take years before the nation's health feels the full effect of a fattening population, but for some of the boys at the lecture, getting weighed down in their daily lives is a more pressing concern, and the television show is already providing some inspiration.
"I'm very fat for my age," said Abdullah al Hayef, an 18-year-old who weighs 85kg. "My friends are all skinny, and when I try to play football with them, they're all better than me. "I want to be on TV, but whether I get on the show or not, I'm going to start dieting from today," Abdullah said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org