Obesity Rampant in the Emirates

Arab Food Pyramid

Arab Food Pyramid

When we think of the global obesity epidemic, we tend to conjour up images of of US-Americans, literally hefting along excess pounds as they go about their lives across America. We may also recall that Canada and most other Western countries have a problem.

But, interestingly, nowhere is the obesity problem as big as in the countries of the Gulf Region and the Middle East (exceeded perhaps only by populations on remote Oceanic islands).

According to the United Arab Emirates global school-based student health survey (GSHS) 2005 fact sheet, over 30% of 13-15 year olds exceed the 85th percentile for body weights. The adult population (though it is hard to find accurate statistics) apparently does not fare much better.

Why, you may wonder, am I interested in this?

Because tonight I am heading out from Munich to speak on Saturday at the 1st International Abu Dhabi Diabetes Conference, in the United Arab Emirates.

Although the conference focusses on diabetes, it is obvious that the prime driver of the diabetes epidemic in that region of the world (as elsewhere) is the obesity crisis.

It is therefore not surprising that the organisers have opted to include sessions on obesity assessment and management (although most of the conference of course focusses on diabetes management, which I have often described as “palliative care”).

As should be obvious to anyone who has recently visited the UAE, population-based prevention measures in a society that spends most of its time indoors (I would too when it’s 40-50 degrees C outside) and enjoys food as one of the only officially endorsed “vices” (there are tough restrictions on alcohol, gambling and other worldly “pleasures”), is lilkely to be challenging if not simply impossible.

Given that the Arab susceptibility to obesity appears similar to other Asians in that they appear more prone to abdominal obesity with all its dire metabolic consequences, diabetes may in fact be the least of their worries.

I look forward to attending the meeting and learning more about the Arab “diabesity” epidemic from my friends and colleagues in the Emirates.

Munich, Germany