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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


  1. This is a very good and healthy post i think. Good to write and share about. Have a great writing and have a great readership. Thanks…

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  2. Concerning enjoyment of food as an alternative to alcohol and gambling and other illegal “vices”:

    How does this compare to other populations which prohibit alcohol and gambling? For example, other religious communities such as Amish, Hutterite or Mormon. Some United Church of Canada congregations used to be teetotal and banned even bingo, and I don’t think they were fatter then.

    Does Las Vegas have lower obesity rates? How about areas of Canada that have high beer and alcohol consumption – is there any correlation between higher liquor sales and lower weights for different areas? First Nations Canadians seem to be having problems with both alcohol and obesity.

    On another note: re the “Emirates population” is about 30% very overweight, and like other Asians, are prone to dangerous abdominal fat.

    I wonder if the “Emirates population” in this case includes only citizens, not including many other people who are living there. There are very large numbers of temporary workers in the Emirates, who may not be included in the “population” statistics. If this is the case, it would be interesting to check the obesity levels among the temporary worker part of the population. I think a large part of the temporary workers would also be Asians, and so would tend to the same abdominal fat problem as the citizen population.

    I wonder if the Emirates show an obesity pattern different from here, in that the affluent are obese and the low income people (even if they’re not part of the official citizen population count) are of lower weight – perhaps even underweight in the case of laborers doing heavy work.

    Here in Canada and the States, isn’t obesity more prevalent among lower income people? The theory is that wealthier people can afford better food and have time and money to join gyms, take exercise classes, etc.

    The UAE looks like an amazing place – enjoy your trip!

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  3. Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates are among the world’s 10 highest for diabetes and the IGT prevalence. From 7.7% Diabetes and IGT regional prevalence in 20 to 79 years old population up to 12% in some countries such as Saudi Arabia and Oman. I found it Interesting to know that the total healthcare expenditure for diabetes in those countries account for only 1.5% of global spending.

    I think it is not only spending more time indoor which has been the case for years before today (and mostly applied in summer time) that could be blamed on the issue of high diabetes prevalence but also over the past three decades, major social and economic changes can be blamed: Rapid economic development, especially among the more wealthy oil-producing countries, has been associated with tremendous modification in lifestyle towards the westernized pattern reflected by changes in nutrition, less physical activity, more smoking and eventually tendency to increased obesity.
    I agree with anonymous about the temporary workers may change the picture of the prevalence of obese and overweight in UAE but there are a large number of immigrants/workers from India and neigbor countries such as Iran yet again with high diabtes prevalence (7%).
    For more information on diabetes in Middle East readers can refer to this link.

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  4. More evidence that obesity is predominately a behavioral issue and less of an economic one. In the US and Canada obesity is viewed an an issue of personal disinhibitation and lack of calorie restraint. In the UAE people are judged more by their wealth and education, than they are by their body form. Interestingly to the UAE do not have the social stress of body perfection that Americans have, which may help to manage our rates of Obesity.

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