As Ramadan commenced, an Arabian Business headline caught my eye: Over 100 hospitalized in Qatar after overeating. This appears to be the effects of a Ramadan celebration gone awry, but as an expat, recently relocated to the UAE, I can sympathize. I’ve been lucky enough to eat the buffets at brunches and Iftars, and while I’ve never had to resort to hospitalization, I can see the importance of self-regulation and self-control.

Articles like that might be humorous, but they underscore what could be the biggest global pandemic since the 1918 Spanish Flu. Researchers agree: obesity is becoming an immense global problem, in the developed and developing world alike. And the Gulf States are disproportionately affected by this trend. Check out these stats:

  • From a global perspective, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are approximately 1.4 billion adults (above 20 years old) that are overweight, globally. Of these, over 200 million men and nearly 300 million women are obese. More than 40 million children (<5) are overweight.

But how do these stats break down by country? And how does that translate to the Gulf?

  1. BMI Prevalence – If you look at BMI (Body Mass Index, obesity being defined as having a Body Mass Index superior to 30kg/m2) and the “fattest” nations are in the Micronesia Islands (Cook Island, Tonga, Samoa, Niue), closely followed by the USA , where 44% of the population is obese and the mean BMI is 29.3
  2. Physical Activity – If you take physical activity as a parameter, Swaziland , Saudi Arabia and Britain have the most sedentary populations on earth, with 69%, 68.8% and 63.3% respectively of the population failing to meet recommended levels of physical activity.
  3. Caloric Consumption – This is where it starts hitting close to home: according to Arabian Business, Qatar , the UAE , Kuwait and Bahrain all rank amongst the world’s top 10 fattest nations, based on calories consumed per day:
  4. The UAE and Qatar were ranked first two globally with the average adult consuming just over 3,000 calories per day.
  5. Kuwait came in third position (2,982 calories), Bahrain fourth (2,889 calories) and Egypt sixth (2,826 calories).
  6. Obesity: Here in the UAE, HAAD-reported adult and childhood obesity rates are somewhat shocking.
  7. The Health Authority of Abu Dhabi (HAAD) reports that approximately 37% of UAE nationals are obese and 74% overweight.
  8. Last year, HAAD reported that 30% of school children are overweight or obese and 70 per cent of them are likely to stay overweight or obese as adults.
  9. As much as 18% of children in the UAE go to a fast food restaurant three to five times in a week.

UAE Awareness Campaigns

However, in the UAE there is no lack of government agencies or corporations that are committed to fighting obesity, its causes and side effects, its risk factors as well as associated diseases and consequences.

Throughout Ramadan, awareness campaigns to guide obese or diabetic people in their fasting proliferated. For instance:

  • Abu Dhabi Health Services (Seha) launched two phone and online services: “My Medication During Ramadan” and “A Healthy Ramadan” (Twitter account @dawaii_seha)
  • The National Health Insurance Company, Daman, hosted an interactive public seminar to support and educate patients with Type 2 Diabetes on safe fasting (more than 350 people attended)
  • On its side, DU launched a 24/7 service operated by Mobile Doctors (licensed by Dubai Healthcare City) which allows anybody to obtain free of charge healthcare tips and guide to quality clinical facilities.

The Expat Factor

As any expat will tell you, weight struggles are not just limited to Gulf or Emirati nationals. Ask anyone about the dreaded “Dubai stone”, and you’ll hear a host of explanations:

  • “There’s something in the water here”
  • “The hot climate makes you lazy…leads to long hours sitting in air conditioning, in front of TV screens, computer monitors, gaming consoles”
  • “You can get anything delivered here! Home delivery calls for everything: corner grocery, dry cleaning, dinner…”
  • “Not to mention… the lifts, the escalators, the drive-through, valet parking
  • Workaholic lifestyles
  • “The Car Culture. One of the most important determinants of average body mass index is motor vehicle gas consumption per capita”.

Health experts, however, will tell you the answer is not one of the above: it’s a mix of all of the above (maybe not the water one though), a dangerous mix of widespread lifestyle changes that expats are likely to encounter when settling down in the UAE.

There is an Infographic for that

In conclusion, have you ever wondered how you measured up against the global fat rankings?

If so, you’re in luck! Recently, the BBC launched this fun interactive “Where are you on the Global Fat Scale?” app on its website. You plug in your data (Age, Gender, Height, Weight, Country) and an infographic calculates your Body Mass Index (BMI), and goes on to show how you rank against others of your age and sex, in your nation and globally.

Give it a try!

The Moral of the Story

As Ramadan comes to a close, and fasting becomes a distant memory, let’s all remember two things: how we affect and how we’re affected by global fat epidemic. Of course, we want to represent our home and adopted countries well, but fatness isn’t just something that impacts our wardrobes or our pride, it can lead to a host of other health concerns that contribute to disease, disability and morbidity. Epidemics are made of individuals, so if the Big Fat Global problem is going to be solved, each of us needs to start by getting its own numbers in check.

Inactivity was defined as not meeting any of three criteria: 30 minutes of moderate activity such as a brisk walk, at least five days a week; 20 minutes of vigorous activity at least three days a week; or an equivalent combination of the two.