KSA Obesity: Key Questions

May 21, 2015

Obesity and diabetes are close cousins. The young are increasingly prone to it. So are adult women. Surgery is not the solution. Lead a life style that includes having healthy food habits and performing physical activity. 

There has been a welcome surge in the economic prosperity of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). With prosperity, socio-cultural and lifestyle changes have emerged. This is like a curator’s egg, good in parts. The disturbing part is the increased incidence of a dangerous medical condition, namely obesity. Once considered a Western phenomenon, it is now very much an Arabic problem: it hurts people medically, and the kingdom financially.
 “Obesity” and “Diabetes” are close cousins.
Type-2 diabetes, a fall out of obesity, is increasing rapidly, including among kids. Obesity leads to other health complications, like hypertension and cardiovascular diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally overweight and obesity are the causes for 44% of diabetes, 23% of heart diseases and 7-14% of certain types of cancer. Worse still, there are societal impacts like low-productivity and reduced confidence levels of the affected group. Psychologically, the obese are more prone to depression and low self-esteem.

Why Obesity?
To assess the causes of obesity, various studies have been conducted in the Kingdom. A study by the King Abdulaziz Medical City revealed that among school children there is a high correlation between watching TV and obesity. A study conducted on college students indicated that unhealthy eating habits like fried food consumption and frequent snacking are the causes for obesity. Other risk factors include physical inactivity. According to the CIA world fact book close to 35% of Saudi population suffer from obesity and ranks 19th globally. A report published by Marmore Research on KSA Healthcare states that obesity has been a phenomenon that has increased rapidly over the past decade; reasons for the increase include sedentary lifestyle, aversion to physically demanding work, consumption of foods that have very high calorific value, wide prevalence of western quick service restaurants and the local sociocultural setup that promotes unhealthy eating habits.
In short, being a couch potato watching the idiot box adinfinitum, consuming junk food and leading a sedentary life are the principal causes for obesity and diabetes.
How does it affect children?
The alarming incidence of obesity among kids is a major concern.  The obesity rate for school-going children is 9.3% and for pre-school children is 6%. Actually, pre-teens are going through bariatric surgeries, which is a tad sad, as internationally the minimum age for such surgeries is 14. Though this surgery results in immediate reduction in weight, it is not sustainable in the long run, if the patient doesn’t maintain a healthy lifestyle.  Medicine can work only up to a point. 
Adult women population is another high-risk group, thanks to socio-cultural norms. Amongst unemployed women, low activity and high fatty consumption are the causes. Worse still, they do not involve themselves in physical activities. Adult males are no better given their propensity to consume of salt-laden foods and lack of exercise.
What is the action plan?
The cost of health care is huge on the country as the government foots the bill of these bariatric surgeries for adults.
A number of research centers like ORC (Obesity Research Centre); some Institutes like the Saudi Bio-bank; and a slew of health care centers such as tertiary care centers and diagnostic centers have been set up.  Mark it prevention is the key as only limited measures like surgeries are available at a later stage. Remember, when the BMI exceeds certain levels, there are immediate health risks that can’t be solved merely with exercise and controlled food intake.
Health education and health promotion programs through workshops, seminars and mass media can help generate awareness. Educational materials targeted at schools and colleges will help in prevention at an early age. Measures like allowing girls in the schools to participate in sports are being considered.
Healthy eating habits including importance of nutrition and balanced diet should be highlighted. Behavioral changes like reducing the time for sedentary activities such as watching TV, playing meaningless video games and increasing the motivation for physical exercise need to be undertaken.
In sum: while the government is working on spreading awareness among the public, only when individuals adopt a healthy lifestyle, will it help in reducing the number of cases of obesity.