Does Life in the UAE make us Overweight?

A survey has revealed that the vast majority of people think that living in the country causes the pounds to pile on

Living in the UAE is making us fat, or so say the vast majority of people taking part in a recent weight loss survey. In a poll designed to help establish the factors that have led to the country being currently listed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the 18th ‘fattest’ nation in the international obesity league, over 100 people in Dubai who had been involved with a health-check program taken to their work places were questioned about their eating habits, weight loss intentions and whether or not they had experienced any discrimination related to their size. Ninety-eight percent of respondents to the survey that had been commissioned by the lifestyle and slimming company VLCC, agreed with the statement that living in the UAE had caused them to pile on the pounds, with many of the expatriates contacted stating that they had noticed their girth expanding after moving here.

Typical of the responses was that of Mohammed Karzak, a UAE national who works for a local property developer. “Everybody in the city relies on their car so much, as the heat is too much to bear in the summer to walk anywhere,” he said. “The city wasn’t really designed for outdoor walkers. We do have some great parks, but the heat for much of the year is too intense to use them. People end up going from car to home to mall and not exercising at all,” he added.

John Varghese, a lab technician from India, also cited the heat as the main factor for his own personal battle with the bulge. “When I lived in India, I was able to go running outdoors, which I did regularly. After moving to Dubai, I tried to carry on jogging, but I soon found the heat and humidity too much,” he said.

“Not only that, but I also left my wife and family back home, moving here on my own. My wife used to make sure that I had healthy food to take with me to work and always had a healthy meal ready for me when I returned. With the long hours I’m now working here, I have no time to prepare good food and always end up grabbing unhealthy junk meals instead,” he added.

The high incidence of Dubai residents eating ‘fast’ food was certainly borne out by the survey, with 20% of respondents admitting to eating such takeaway meals three to four times a week. The pressure of working long hours was also a common theme. Douda Hussein, a transport worker from Palestine, revealed that he had little time to do much else except “eat, sleep and go to work.” He also bemoaned the lack of free amenities that might encourage residents to shed some pounds. “There are some good gyms, but these can be expensive and I think that there should be more free facilities for people to use,” he added.

Lack of exercise was brought up by 11% of those taking part in the poll as being the causative factor that had led to them being over the healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) range. Forty-eight percent stated that it was a poor diet, while 22% blamed both. The research also revealed that there was an awareness from respondents about the importance of staying trim, with 92% stating that they were either trying to lose weight at the present time or were intending to do so in the future. Fifty-four percent said that they had been advised to lose weight by their doctors.

Despite a perceived lack of facilities within the UAE needed to alleviate obesity, there have been a number of initiatives put forward from the authorities, private sector corporations and individuals, which are aimed at addressing this pressing issue. Among the laudable government initiatives to combat the prevalence of obesity in the country was a high-profile activity that took place last April under the patronage of HRH Princess Haya bint Al Hussein, wife of His Highness Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. Under this campaign, the UAE Ministry of Health, in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), launched the ‘National Campaign to fight Child Obesity in the UAE – The Fat Truth’ under the slogan ‘Get Involved So They Can Too.’

“We have embarked on an education campaign to combat obesity in the UAE and to raise awareness in the public about healthy options,” said Dr. Salah El Badawi, Director of the National project for control of Diabetes, UAE Ministry of Health. “We have been distributing leaflets and having talks in schools about the importance of adopting a healthy lifestyle and although this programme hasn’t undergone a formal assessment as yet, the feeling we have is that it is gaining acceptance,” he added.

Dr. Salah is at the forefront of the Ministry of Health’s campaign for a fitter nation and has just returned from a three-day conference on the subject of childhood obesity, which was held at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. He is keen to highlight the link between being overweight and developing future illnesses. “Obesity doesn’t just stand by itself,” he said. “It is a risk factor for so many other diseases; including diabetes, cancer and chronic obstructive lung disease,” he added. “We are in the process of teaching children, parents, teachers and nurses about what they can do to fight this,” he continued.

Private sector organisations have also been keen to spread the message of exercising to maintain good health. VLCC, who commissioned the survey about the UAE lifestyle, ran an UAE Anti-Obesity campaign at the close of last year, which culminated in a ‘Cycle-a-thon’ that took place on December 18. The 10-kilometre bike ride set off from Port Rashid and travelled along the Jumeirah Beach Road, attracting hundreds of riders who had the opportunity to purchase a reduced-cost bicycle at its start. The activity proved so popular that the organisers ran out of the pedal-powered machines before everyone could set off. “We are most delighted about the energy and enthusiasm displayed towards the Anti Obesity Drive; the turnout today is ample proof that our passion for the cause has been understood well and also supported by the residents of the UAE,” said Mukesh Luthra, Chairman of VLCC Group. “This is the very first and important step towards preventing this disease.”

One particularly inventive exercise programme that has gained a lot of support from residents in Dubai is ‘Mall Walkers,’ which takes place every weekday at 8:30 AM at Mall of the Emirates. Launched in September 2006, the free, supervised fitness activity sees its members walking at their own pace through the atriums and floors of the popular shopping and leisure centre. The indoor public space offers an all-year-round air conditioned environment in which to exercise and the programme designates a leader to motivate, train and educate the walkers with useful tips and information on how to stay healthy. Starting out with just 50 registrations in the first few months, Mall Walkers now boasts over 575 enthusiastic members from 28 nationalities who have perambulated a combined distance of over 22,000 kilometres.

“The increasing coverage of health issues, as well as my own personal experiences with exercise and weight management, led me to believe that it was time to be part of the solution rather than the problem,” revealed Deborah Dixon, Founder of ‘Stride for Life,’ the organisation behind the Mall Walkers programme. “I got off my chair, came out from behind my computer and decided to try and share what I have learnt through experience about sustaining an active lifestyle over the long term. Not because I am any kind of expert, but just because I finally found a way that worked for me,” she added.

With such pro-active approaches arising from all sectors of UAE society aiming to tackling the issue of excessive body weight, it is hoped that the next survey question asking whether living in the country causes obesity is answered with a resounding ‘no.’

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