Obesity is not only a problem for developed countries like the United States. In fact, the Middle East has the second highest mean body mass index next to North America. More than 50% of total deaths in the Middle East can be attributed to chronic, noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure - all diseases which are associated with obesity. Over the past 20 years, developing countries have seen their obesity rates triple as their citizens have adopted lifestyles of physical inactivity and overconsumption of energy-dense foods. Arab countries especially have seen a great increase in overweight, obesity, and noncommunicable chronic diseases. In these countries, 40-60% of adult males are classified as overweight or obese, while 50-70% of adult females are overweight or obese. For school-aged children ages 6-10 and adolescents ages 11-18, 12-25% and 20-45%, respectively, are overweight or obese. Individuals in the Middle East are now eating less fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, and more fat, sugar, and salt. They are consuming more fast food and sugary drinks, while skipping breakfast and eating more snacks between meals. As the Arab diet becomes more Western, its citizens are also adopting more Western patterns of physical activity, or lack there of. Individuals in the Middle East are spending more time in front of the screen (television, computer, video games), and less time being active.
Researchers at universities across the Middle East recognize overweight and obesity as major health and economic burdens to their countries. As a result, they are taking charge by developing strategies for preventing and controlling obesity in their nations. The “Strategy to combat obesity and promote physical activity in Arab countries” was created by The Arab Taskforce for Obesity and Physical Activity. The strategy was presented to representations from 14 Arab countries last year at the Third Arab Conference on Obesity and Physical Activity. The strategy is a 5 year plan with the following summarized goals: 1. to control and reduce the incidence of overweight and obesity in Arab societies through promotion of healthy dietary habits and physical activity, 2. to reduce the risk factors for chronic noncommunicable diseases, 3. to raise awareness in the community about the importance of physical activity, nutrition, and weight maintenance, 4. to develop partnerships between government institutions, the private sector, and the civil society, 5. to establish ways of monitoring and assessing obesity and activity in these Arab societies, 6. to conduct research on the health, nutrition, social, and economic factors leading to obesity in these countries, and 7. to provide effective treatment services to obese individuals. The Taskforce emphasizes that the programs and activities implemented must be evidence based, practical, and sustainable, while being applicable to all ages and social and economical backgrounds. The strategy will target childcare centers, schools, primary healthcare centers, secondary healthcare centers (hospitals and treatment centers), food companies (manufacturers and producers), food preparation and service institutions (restaurants, cafeterias, fast food establishments), the media (commercial promoters and marketers of food), public benefit organizations (associations, institutions, non-governmental organizations), and the workplace (private sector).
For each target area, the Taskforce outlines specific expected outcomes, objectives, indicators to assess achievement of objectives, and actions needed to meet these objectives. Briefly, some of the main objectives of the taskforce are to: increase healthy breakfast consumption by 25% among school-aged children, increase physical activity by 25%, increase health and nutrition knowledge among healthcare staff by 50%, increase by 25% the number of people who consume 4 servings of fruit and vegetables daily, reduce the percentage of students who eat fast food more than three times/week by 30%, increase by 50% the number of programs related to early detection of obesity risk factors, increase the proportion of low-calorie foods and beverages available in food markets by 25%, increase the number of healthy meals served in large restaurants by 25%, increase by 30% the proportion of food advertisements that contain accurate information and positive messages in the media, and to increase by 50% the proportion of enterprises that foster a healthy environment for employees that encourages activity and nutrition.
The Arab Taskforce for Obesity and Physical Activity will conduct research, establish guidelines, and provide outreach to all of their countries to ensure implementation and on-going participation in the new developed strategies.
Written By: Katy Hartman, Dietetic Intern, Frances Stern Nutrition Center, Tufts Medical Center; MS Nutrition Candidate, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University
Strategy to combat obesity and to promote physical activity in Arab countries
Abdulrahman O Musaiger, Hazzaa M Al Hazzaa, Aayed Al-Qahtani, et al. March 2011;4:89 - 97