According to the International Obesity Taskforce, Qatar is the fattest nation in the world, where half of all adults are obese and 17% of the population is suffering from diabetes.
By comparison America, which is often assumed to be the fattest, looks positively slim with a third of adults obese and eight per cent diabetic.
The tiny Arab state, with its vast natural gas reserves, became the richest nation in the world last year if measured according to per capita gross domestic product.
Fast food companies like McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, etc. have started to focus on the Middle East as markets elsewhere are becoming more and more saturated.
Qatar is not immune to this form of globalisation. “Just like everyone in the world, Qataris too are also enjoy the fine living, and this comes in the form of western tastes and diets,” Sarah Nuaimy, a Qatari nutritionist told Arabian Gazette. “There are healthy options available at these fast food outlets, but not highlighted and if they are, the younger generation is not willing to swap it for the tastier, high calorie foods.”
Qataris are contracting diabetes a decade younger than average which in turn is pushing up rates of illnesses like hypertension, partial paralysis, heart disease and blindness.
“Diabetes is a serious disease which creeps up without a warning and once it takes its place it’s very difficult to manage,” Nuaimy said.
“It’s a very, very serious problem facing the future of Qatar,” Sharoud Al-Jundi Matthis, the programme manager at the Qatar Diabetes Association, said.
Adel Al-Sharshani, 39, who was diagnosed with diabetes several years ago, said: “Everybody in Qatar knows about diabetes, but everyone is just talking about it. No one is taking care of it.”
“I ignored all the advice until it was too late, and that is what other people are doing too. It’s dangerous. I am afraid of losing my eyes, my foot. I am afraid of losing my life,” the Qatari added.
“Inculcating healthy eating habits in children is very important,” Nuaimy said. “However, mothers find it an uphill battle to make their children eat vegetables as they don’t see their friends or class mates eating it. Some children become fast food addicts simply due to peer pressure,” the nutritionist explained.
Social groups are bound by loyalty to peers. In the past, children have gone to extreme lengths to become part of the “in-group.” Last year, a Chinese boy reportedly sold his kidney in order to purchase an iPad and an iPhone and join the more popular group in his school.
The Qatari government is desperately trying to tackle the problem by launching campaigns to encourage healthy eating and exercise.
Maher Safi, marketing director at the Qatar Olympic Committee, explained: “Our main focus is encouraging people to be active, getting them to lead healthy lifestyles – that’s our vision.”
“In the past few years, the committee has launched public programmes administering free body-mass indexes and sugar level tests, disseminated material about healthy eating, and introduced initiatives at schools to help children learn about new sports, like handball, tennis, and cycling,” he added.
Taking Page from the UAE
The UAE has tackled obesity and diabetes better than other countries in the region. “Qatar can learn from the UAE regarding its fight against obesity,” Sarah Nuaimy said. “Five or six years ago, the UAE was struggling with the same problems, but now they have turned it around,” she added.
The UAE government has invested heavily in educating people about the effects of obesity. There are regular discussions and forums on the subject and both Emirati and expat mothers have benefitted from these forums.
“I have lived in Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia,” Joan Winterfields, an expat mother of three children, told Arabian Gazette. “Though fast food culture seems to be rampant in all these countries, the awareness to be healthy is prominent in the UAE, especially in Dubai, thanks to the numerous public forums on obesity.”