Friday, March 23, 2012

Arab women and their fight to keep fit

In many past civilisations, women were considered attractive if they were plump and rounded with voluptuous feminine curves. Being fat was a symbol of beauty and fertility and a source of pride.
Obesity reflected status and wealth because only the rich could afford to eat well. The ample wives of prosperous men stayed at home and performed their traditional role as mothers and housewives, while poor women were short of food, worked hard, and stayed thin. Nowadays, with the abundance of food and the shifting role of women toward education, economic participation, and employment, fatness has lost its spell and most people’s perception of what constitutes female beauty has changed to a model of slenderness.

Yet, today, in spite of new standards of beauty, people around the world are getting fatter. The percentage of people classified as overweight (exceeding in weight with a body mass index of 25 plus) or obese (very fat with a body mass index of 30 plus) has increased globally. And the situation in the GCC countries is especially bad, as overweight and obesity rates have shot up alarmingly during the past decades. In particular, women have become fatter than men in the region.

According to recent WHO data, the prevalence of overweight among GCC men in 2008 was estimated at around 78 percent in Kuwait, 73 percent in Qatar, 71 percent in the UAE and Bahrain, 69 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 57 percent in Oman. The prevalence of overweight among GCC women was almost similar to the rates for men: Kuwait 79 percent, the UAE 71 percent, Bahrain and Qatar 70 percent, Saudi Arabia 69 percent, and Oman 54 percent.

Although Europe also suffers from an increase in overweight population the prevalence of overweight among women is much lower (United Kingdom 61 percent, Germany 54 percent, Norway 51 percent, France 45 percent, Switzerland 40 percent) and even more so in Asia (Malaysia 46 percent, Philippines 28 percent, Indonesia 26 percent, and India, twelve percent).

Obviously, overweight is now a serious problem in the Gulf region. Yet, obesity is even a more critical issue. WHO data for male obesity (20+) in 2008 were around: 37 percent in Kuwait, 31 percent in Qatar, 30 percent in the UAE, 29 percent in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and nineteen percent in Oman. But shockingly female obesity rates (20+) were much higher at 52 percent in Kuwait, 43 percent in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, 39 percent in Qatar, 38 percent in Bahrain, and 26 percent in Oman. And female obesity rates (20+) are also lower in Europe (United Kingdom 25 percent, Spain 23 percent, Germany nineteen percent, Norway eighteen percent, France fifteen percent, Switzerland twelve percent) and much more in Asia (Malaysia eighteen percent, Indonesia seven percent, and India two percent).
These high rates of obesity in the GCC countries are a major cause for concern, presenting a major challenge to society. The health risks of obesity are numerous. Being fat greatly increases the risk of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cerebral and cardiovascular diseases and cancer, all potentially fatal, as well as causing serious joint problems. According to The Economist (2012) the percentage of the population aged 20-79 with diabetes in 2010 is nineteen percent in the UAE, Saudi Arabia seventeen percent, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait around fifteen percent, and Oman thirteen percent. Lower percentages were found in other countries such as Malaysia twelve percent, Egypt and Syria around eleven percent. The costs of dealing with all of these diseases are enormous, putting great strain on health care services everywhere.

Overweight and obesity in the GCC are linked to various social and economic factors. As a result of oil wealth, the GCC countries have witnessed incredible socio-economic developments: high per capita income, lifestyle changes, rapid urbanisation, increasing number of supermarkets, and a shift to consumerism. This has been accompanied by a transition in nutrition, with diet more often based on fast food and an excessive intake of fats, meat, sugar, and carbohydrates alongside a deficiency in fruits, vegetables, and grains. However, is fast food consumption the only reason for women’s high obesity rates in the Gulf region?

It is undisputed that another major cause of obesity for both men and women is insufficient exercise, and this is particularly so for GCC women. Recent WHO data for 2008 indicates the high prevalence of physical inactivity for GCC women: 75 percent in Saudi Arabia, 71 percent in Kuwait, 68 percent in the UAE. (Estimates for men are better: Saudi Arabia 61 percent, Kuwait 58 percent, and the UAE 55 percent).  GCC women are very inactive compared to those in other countries; even in the USA, the figure is 51 percent. In Europe, inactivity rates range from 48 percent in Sweden to 36 percent in France and sixteen percent in The Netherlands, and the comparison with Asia is even greater (Indonesia, 28 percent, Philippines 26 percent, India seventeen percent). So, what is behind the high percentages of physical inactivity in the GCC countries?

There is no doubt that the harsh climate of the Gulf region characterized by high temperatures of heat, humidity and sand storms is not conducive to physical activity in the open air for anyone. Women rarely walk, mostly travelling by car.

Tradition and culture in a patriarchal society also restrict women from moving freely outside the home and consider physical exercise as a male activity. Also, the influx of devices such as televisions, computers, and home appliances has encouraged a sedentary lifestyle. Moreover, most GCC women do not carry out domestic chores. Millions of low-cost foreign workers are employed in the region in manual jobs, working as domestic staff, chauffeurs, cooks, maids, housekeepers, and nannies. With all measures of comfort, and no reason to lift a finger to do housework, GCC women are simply not moving enough in their daily lives.

Like many of their sisters elsewhere GCC women want to be slim and many are looking for a quick fix to achieve this. Some turn to diet pills and medications, which at best have little long-term effect and at worst have harmful side-effects, sometimes even causing death. Other women opt for surgery, which can also lead to health complications. The only safe formula for reducing weight and keeping it off is sensible eating and regular exercise.

There is widespread agreement that 30 minutes of daily physical activity facilitates weight loss and weight control. And perhaps more importantly, as well as burning calories, good health defined in terms of physical, mental, and social well-being increases with higher levels of physical activity. Even modest weight losses can influence obesity-associated diseases such as type 2 diabetes, where a six percent weight loss combined with increased physical activity can reduce diabetes incidence by 58 percent. And as a bonus, exercise boosts energy, enhances confidence and self-esteem, and stimulates healthier sleep and the ability to deal with stress.

Today, GCC governments are making efforts to combat the overweight and obesity problem through health awareness campaigns and the promotion of sport.

In Bahrain, the Third Arab Conference on Obesity and Physical Activity (2010) launched a strategy to combat obesity and promote physical activity in Arab countries. It made recommendations for the prevention and control of obesity covering many areas: schools, healthcare agencies, food companies, public benefit organisations, the workplace, and the media. In Saudi Arabia, a National Campaign against Overweight and Obesity has been launched by the Ministry of Health’s Media and the Health Awareness General Department, developing programmes for weight loss and increase in physical activities. In the UAE, the Ministry of Health launched a ‘No to Obesity’ programme including awareness lectures and physical training programmes for young Emiratis.

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