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Obesity: Gulf states world ‘heavyweight’ contenders

Kuwait fared the worst among Gulf states, with 42.8 percent of its adult population classed as obese.

By Faith Barker / 25 Jul 2013

People in the Gulf are among the fattest in the world, according to a recent U.N. report.

Kuwait fared the worst among Gulf states, with 42.8 percent of its adult population classed as obese. This puts it in the top 10 most obese countries in the world.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not far behind, with 35.2 percent and 33.1 percent respectively.

In the United States, often scoffed at for being a nation of fat people, 31.8 percent of people are obese.


Obesity is associated with heart disease, osteoarthritis and type 2 diabetes.

Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are all among the top 10 countries worldwide in terms of diabetes.

In Kuwait, 21.1 percent of the population suffers from the disease, according to figures from the International Diabetes Foundation published in Arabian Business.

In Qatar, obesity is the greatest factor in the increasing incidence of type 2 diabetes, medical consultant Mohsen el-Edrisi told The Peninsula this week.

“Plans are... afoot to make anti-obesity awareness studies a part of the school curriculum,” said Dr Faleh Mohamed Hussain Ali, assistant secretary-general of Qatar’s Supreme Council of Health.

Bad habits

Common and well-understood causes of obesity worldwide are the excessive consumption of fatty, salty, processed and pre-packaged foods, as well as lack of exercise.

The rapid increase in wealth, and the subsequent development of Gulf states, have resulted in a sudden change in lifestyle.

International fast-food chains, easy access to cars, and the popularity of cheap, processed food in supermarkets have all contributed to dramatic waistline expansion.

As for diabetes, both genetic and lifestyle factors may play a role, Dr Saf Naqvi, consultant diabetologist and endocrinologist at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre, told Al Arabiya.

“No one really fully knows yet what causes diabetes, but genetic factors, weight, lifestyle, environment and viruses may have a part to play,”said Dr Naqvi.

“A more sedentary lifestyle and bad eating habits have been cited as the main causes of the increasing prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the UAE,”he added.

ICLDC endocrinologist Maha Taysir told Arabian Business that there may be a genetic factor.

“Research suggests that people [in the Gulf] have a lower set-point at which their body-mass index levels trigger the onset of diabetes,”she said.

However, lifestyle is sure to be a contributing factor, as even expats in the Gulf have a higher incidence of diabetes than in their home countries, Taysir added.

Worse for women

While the global trend shows that women are more likely to be obese than men, in the Gulf and other Arab countries the disparity is much greater.

While in terms of overweight men and women are equal, often the percentage of women who are obese is twice that of men.

Possible reasons for this disparity could be the culture of women staying at home, leading to a lack of exercise.

A Gallup poll in 2011 found that only 16 percent of Saudi women exercised for 30 minutes or more three times a week, compared with 27 percent of their male compatriots.


The Gallup poll showed that those who were more educated and aware of the benefits of healthy eating tended to change their habits.

The U.N. report says that while it is difficult to measure the effects of public health campaigns, nutrition education is effective at tackling obesity.

Overall spending on healthcare in the Gulf is just $1,200 per capita, compared with $5,000 in “developed countries,” according to an article in the Kipp Report, a Middle East business website.


Responsibility for lifestyle changes also lies with the patient, said Dr Naqvi.

“It’s hardly realistic or fair to heap the entire burden on government shoulders, and some feel that the individual should take responsibility for their health.”

“A collaborative effort among people with diabetes and those at risk of diabetes, governments and health services, health care professionals and the general public, is needed to manage the global diabetes challenge,”he added.

Dr. Naqvi stressed the importance of education in the Gulf as the key to confronting obesity and diabetes.

“Public health campaigns through collaboration with state agencies and other stake holders is the way forward to control the rising incidence of obesity and diabetes.”

“Management of diabetes in this region must develop a culturally sensitive approach, taking into consideration the social structure, dietary habits and economic constraints.”


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