Obesity a burden of disease in UAE: Expert

Filed on June 1, 2014

With 180 million overweight people in the Mena region alone, experts say obesity is a problem we need to address strongly

Dealing with the big ‘fat’ crisis

Obesity is back in the news. Last week a spate of discussions and studies revealing the fat crisis in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) were released. One such study by the Seattle-based research group Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) reported an estimate of 79 million obese people living in the region today, and an even greater number — 180 million — overweight people live in the Mena region.

Ali Mokdad, director of Middle Eastern Initiatives at IHME, told Khaleej Times: “Obesity is the leading cause of burden of disease in the UAE. Our Global Burden of Disease (GBD) 2010 and the Arab Burden of disease publication showed that obesity is the leading cause of Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALY) in the UAE and the third leading cause of death.”

Dr Hussam Altrabulsi, Specialist General Surgeon at Zulekha Hospital in Dubai who is a specialist in obesity surgery, said: “Morbid Obesity after smoking is the second highest preventable cause of death. Dr Altrabulsi’s definition of obesity is simpler than the BMI-indices one usually hears about. He says, “Anyone who

weighs 35kg over their normal body weight is morbidly obese.”

Need for support groups

Since September last year, when Zulekha Hospital launched a bariatric surgery centre, Dr Altrabulsi has performed 60 fat loss surgeries (known as ‘gastric sleeve/ gastric bypass’). From one case a week, he says: “I now do three cases a week, more people are coming forward and saying they give up or they’re tired of ‘feeling fat’”.

He says “obesity is a problem we need to address strongly, the problem is very complex. There is an urgent need for support groups of obese people”. His patients come to him feeling isolated, having difficulty sleeping, having difficulty in their marriages, having difficulty finding a partner, confidence issues, body image issues – the problems are plenty. Obese people feel insecure to go shop in a mall because many stores don’t stock clothing beyond XXL size. The “emotional liabilities” of being an obese person are not to be undermined.

Another study done last year by Dubai’s health authorities said that by the end of 2016, half the population of the UAE will be obese. Dr Altrabulsi says he has obese patients as young as 18 years old now suffering from diabetes and hypertension. “It’s a very big problem,” he says.

Incentives to get healthy

The Dubai Health Authority and Dubai Municipality last year came up with a way to incentivise weight loss for Dubai residents by handing out one gram of gold for every kilogramme of weight shed in one month (up to 5 kgs); 10,666 people enrolled for the scheme.

But Dr Altrabulsi said: “yo-yo diets will never work”. That only 20 per cent of people who will go on a diet will stick to the diet and maintain that weight loss beyond 2-3 months”.

Childhood Obesity was one of the topics discussed at the two-day Arab Paediatric Medical Council held over the weekend at Amwaj Rotana in Dubai. Dr Mahmoud Fikri, former assistant undersecretary for preventive medicine, Ministry of Health and Dr Ayesha Abdullah, managing director, Dubai Healthcare City Authority– Regulator spoke about a range of causes of obesity in children – from the imbalance between food intake and physical activity to the climate not being conducive to exercise.

Price you pay

An important point raised, was the price of foods that are healthy. Fruits and vegetables – everything healthy – are much more than standard junk food. Parents and families cannot always afford the nutritious but expensive veggies, fruits and nuts and sources of protein, and will often opt for the cheaper, fried, quick meals, ignoring the amount of salt, sugar and preservatives in canned and packaged foods.

Mokdad said: “Our study is a call for action in the UAE and other countries. We need to improve our behaviour, eat a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables and be physically active. The challenge of chronic diseases and their risk factors need a multi-sectorial approach for addressing them. It is not the Ministry of Health alone, others have to be involved from educational institutions (more physical activity at schools and better diet), as well as agriculture industry to support 
health foods.”

Dr Jose-Luis Gallego, consultant advanced Laparoscopic and Bariatric Surgeon at Mediclinic Welcare Hospital in Dubai, says half the patients who come to him are overweight. “Not all are obese, of course, but I can say half of them are definitely obese, much over the healthy BMI”.

He says, eating patterns are determined at a very young age. “The 2 to 5 age group is crucial in setting patterns of healthy eating. Parents need to set the habits early, because a child with poor eating habits is likely to grow into an adult with poor eating habits.” And that sets off a chain of other problems — diabetes, heart disease, hyper tension. Obesity, he says, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Key facts on obesity by the World Health Organisation

  • Worldwide obesity has nearly doubled since 1980.

  • In 2008, more than 1.4 billion adults, 20 and older, were overweight. Of these over 200 million men and nearly 300 million women were obese.

  • 35 per cent of adults aged 20 and over were overweight in 2008, and 11% were obese.

  • 65 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.

  • More than 40 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2012.

  • Obesity is preventable.


Nivriti Butalia

Nivriti is assistant editor with Khaleej Times. She brings out the features pages on Fridays and Saturdays (see 'Blogs' at, and writes a weekly slice-of-life column called Meanderings. Her Twitter handle is @butniv.

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