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Global obesity epidemic: Qatar’s battle with rising weight gain

In Qatar, 46.1% women and 35.9% men above the age of 18 are classified as obese, according to the Global Nutrition Report.

Often attributed to a combination of genetic predisposition, unhealthy dietary habits, sedentary lifestyles and socio-economic factors, obesity poses serious physical and psychological health risks.

In Qatar, 46.1% women and 35.9% men above the age of 18 are classified as obese, according to the Global Nutrition Report. This rate significantly exceeds regional averages, where the median stands at 10.3% for women and 7.5% for men.

Currently, diabetes is a major concern globally, afflicting an estimated 21.3% of adult women and 21.8% of adult men across the world.

Severe weight imbalance exposes individuals to a multitude of health risks. Medical conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and certain types of cancer have been directly linked to obesity.

The condition further exerts a significant psychological toll on those who do fall in the obese spectrum as they face social stigmas, leading to self-esteem issues, depression and anxiety disorders.

Tima Ben Brahim, a Doha-based licensed Sport and Clinical Dietician underscored the severe psychological toll that obesity can have on individuals, especially in a culture-rich society like Qatar, in interview with Doha News.

“Obesity can lead to low self-esteem and body image issues, depression, anxiety and even social isolation,” she said.

The dietician further emphasised that unhealthy relationships with food may arise among those considered obese, potentially leading to eating disorders.

Obesity among children

In Qatar, nearly 46% of school-aged children are overweight or obese, according to a study by the National Library of Medicine, posing a serious issue within the country.

One of factors contributing to this alarming statistic includes unhealthy food marketing. Children are frequently targeted with advertisements for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, many of which promote poor dietary habits from an early age.

The perils of obesity in children, is that it leads to complicated long-term consequences.

Clinical studies have indicated that children with obesity are at a higher risk of developing hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and psychological challenges in adulthood. As such, addressing obesity in children is not only critical for their current wellbeing but also for their future health.

Brahim asserts that parents can play a significant role in promoting healthier habits for their children, explaining that adopting a healthy lifestyle, engaging in physical activities together, offering healthy food choices, limiting screen time, and educating children about the importance of a balanced diet and regular exercise can go a long way.

What is causing obesity in Qatar?

In Qatar, the correlation between a sedentary lifestyle and obesity cannot be overlooked.

A surge in office work and the wide availability of cheap, unhealthy food alternatives have contributed significantly to what has been dubbed by many experts as ‘obesity epidemic.’

In addition, the complexity of obesity, shaped by factors beyond individual control, including genetics and the socio-economic environment, demands multi-faceted, comprehensive solutions.

Delving into the causes of obesity, experts have identified sedentary lifestyle, high-calorie diets, cultural factors and genetic predisposition as contributors to the problem.

“Increased urbanisation, reliance on cars, the adoption of a more Westernised diet, and traditional hospitality and celebrations often involve large meals and high-calorie dishes,” Brahim explained, stating that the infrastructure in other countries promotes a more active lifestyle compared to the luxury services provided in Qatar, which inadvertently encourage inactivity.

So what can be done?

The dietician stressed the importance of employing strategies tailored to the unique lifestyle and cultural factors of Qatar.

“Promoting health education and awareness, encouraging physical activity and healthy eating initiatives, collaborating with religious institutions and involving healthcare providers are all key approaches,” she said, highlighting the special emphasis on the role of physical activity and exercise.

“It helps burn calories, maintain a healthy weight and improve overall health. Engaging in regular exercise can also have positive effects on mental wellbeing, reducing stress and anxiety,” Brahim told Doha News.

Unpacking the role of diet and nutrition in this context, Brahim noted that attention should also be placed on “whole foods, portion control and reducing intake of sugary and processed foods.”

Adapting traditional dishes to become healthier by reducing oil, salt and sugar content, encouraging hydration, and promoting a variety of healthy choices in restaurants is also essential, she advised.

What is Qatar doing to help?

Recognising the gravity of the issue, the Gulf nation has been implementing several strategies to combat obesity in recent years, of which has been the launching of various initiatives aimed at promoting physical activity and healthy eating, particularly in schools, where obesity is at a high percentage.

In schools, physical education has been made a compulsory part of the curriculum to encourage active lifestyles among children. Regulations on marketing unhealthy food to children have also been tightened.

Efforts have further been directed towards creating health-awareness campaigns, establishing dietary guidelines and working towards making nutritious food more accessible and affordable.

Healthcare institutions in Qatar have also ramped up their services to manage and prevent obesity. Specialised clinics offer multidisciplinary weight management programmes, including diet and nutrition counseling, physical activity advice and psychological support. Individuals are being encouraged to seek professional help to ensure safe and effective weight loss.

Brahim reaffirmed the success of certain strategies and programmes that have been making a difference in Qatar, stressing that ‘community’ is the answer.

“The community is the sense of unity or encouragement of hope and of belonging. Creating communities to hold the individual accountable, motivate to push the limits to break the boundaries to give hope and to create the change, think of it as a health cult but on a nation scale.”

She explained that efforts such as community health events, workplace wellness programmes, school-based initiatives, online platforms and apps, clinics and health camps can, and have been, successful in combatting obesity in Qatar.

“Community members can get involved by participating in these initiatives, spreading awareness, and supporting efforts to promote healthy living,” Brahim added.

The battle is ‘far from over’

Despite these efforts, the battle against obesity in Qatar is far from over. The current situation underscores the need for continued policy innovations, proactive community involvement and individual responsibility. As the adage goes, prevention is better than cure.

Brahim acknowledges the unique challenges individuals in Qatar face when trying to access resources for weight management. Limited awareness, language barriers, cultural sensitivity, and accessibility of facilities can all act as roadblocks.

As such, a focus on preventing obesity, especially from a young age, is crucial to turning the tide regarding this public health crisis.