-The prevalence of obesity in the region is among the highest in the world.
-Obesity is a major economic burden on countries in the region.
-High levels of obesity are due to a combination of interconnected environmental, cultural and biological causes.
-A widespread public misperception is that obesity is a symptom of diabetes or hypertension, rather than a disease in itself.
-Governments need to move on several fronts if they want to combat the obesity crisis.
In order to tackle the obesity crisis in the Middle East, major policy gaps need to be bridged, according to experts interviewed for Confronting obesity in the Middle East: Cultural, social and policy challenges, a new report published today by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).
According to data from the World Health Organisation, obesity rates among adults are exceptionally high in the region, at around 37% in the UAE, 40% in Kuwait and 42% in Qatar. The causes are complex. A formerly Mediterranean-style diet has increasingly been replaced by fast food. Meanwhile, levels of physical activity have plummeted amid an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, a lack of sidewalks, high temperatures, rapid urbanisation and technological developments. Biology also plays a role, including genetic susceptibility and a complex gene-environment interaction caused by the desert location.
Prevalence among women is significantly higher in the region. Women’s risk of obesity often increases with childbearing, exacerbated by cultural factors such as restrictions on their public role and movement.
The economic impact of obesity is growing, partly exacerbated by the link of obesity with associated conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular problems. However, obesity is not yet seen as a metabolic disorder in its own right. Experts say that this misperception makes it more challenging to care for patients. A lack of role models, especially among medical practitioners, compounds the problem.
Experts interviewed for this report have identified key improvements to bridge policy gaps, including:
• rudimentary preventive programmes, including education in schools;
• a more integrated approach involving nurse practitioners, family physicians and social workers, with a stronger focus on preventive strategies for reproductive-aged women;
• more aggressive regulatory measures, such as bans on the sale of sugary drinks in or near schools;
• multidisciplinary teams to treat those who are already obese, with a core team including specialists in obesity medicine and management dieticians and specialist psychologists.
Martin Koehring, the editor of the report, said: “The Middle East region faces an obesity crisis. Policymakers will have to acknowledge the complexity of obesity and its myriad causes. Our report identifies room for improvement, including more integrated preventive programmes, tougher regulatory action and the creation of multidisciplinary teams.”
Obesity: A growing threat to region’s economies
A study by UK consultants Strategy& warned that non-communicable diseases (NCDs)—many of which are linked to and exacerbated by obesity—could cost the GCC states US$68bn a year in lost output and treatment costs by 2022, almost double an estimate of US$36bn in 2013.
For the UAE alone, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates the
economic burden of obesity at US$6bn annually.
Diabetes is an associated disease strongly linked to obesity.
According to the International Diabetes Federation, spending on diabetes care reached US$17.1bn in 2015, or 15% of total health expenditure, in the MENA region, the highest proportional
expenditure globally and well above the global average of 11.6%.
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