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Is obesity the next pandemic in the Middle East? What can fix this?

Sedentary lifestyles characterized by easy access to cars and fast food have led to a burgeoning health crisis.

Is obesity the next pandemic in the Middle East? What can fix this?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Imagine losing 40 kilos in less than three months. While it sounds too good to be true, it isn’t far-fetched. In the past few weeks, the diabetic drug Ozempic has garnered over 360 million views on Tiktok, making it an instant sensation. Even Elon Musk tweeted how he used the drug to lose 13 kilos. 

“The misuse of Ozempic is leading to shortages and denying actual patients with diabetes and obesity the drug they need”, says Dr. Jimmy Joseph, Specialist in Internal Medicine at Aster Clinic, International City, Dubai. 

“The drug is used for weight loss in patients with Type 2 diabetes mellitus. However, it is not approved by the FDA solely for weight loss and should not be used for this purpose”. 

Its misuse may have severe repercussions, including thyroid diseases, thyroid cancers, pancreatitis, kidney damage, hypoglycemia, and gallbladder issues. In 2021, the FDA granted approval for the use of Wegovy as a treatment for chronic weight management in adults who are overweight or obese. It is important to note that this drug must be taken only with a medical prescription.

“GLP-1 agonists are a huge group of medications introduced 15 years ago. This medication stimulates hormones that trigger us to stop eating because we feel full. It helps restrict caloric intake for someone lacking this natural indication,” says Dr. Sara Suliman, Consultant Endocrinologist and Diabetologist at Imperial College London Diabetes Center. 

The social media craze with the weight loss drug highlights an issue at the core of society – the obsession with body image and lack of knowledge in dealing with obesity. A World Health Organization (WHO) report predicts that 2.7 billion adults worldwide will be overweight and obese by 2025.

OBESE BY DESIGN?

The obesity epidemic has consumed the region. No matter where you look, the stats are bleak. Per a report by World Obesity Federation (WOF), approximately a third of women and a quarter of men are now classed as excessively overweight in the region. In the UAE, 31% of women in the UAE are obese, and 25% of men. In Saudi Arabia, 31% of men and 42% of women are obese. 

“The rates of obesity have risen slightly later in the Middle East than it has globally. This is directly proportional to the increase in affluence with our lifestyle choices, such as easy access to cars and fast food,” says Dr. Suliman. 

Historically, all human beings are genetically primed to save food. “These genetic mechanisms were great when there wasn’t much food, but suddenly the world has increased access to fast-acting calories. Now, we lead a relatively sedentary lifestyle, so obesity has become a global pandemic,” says Dr. Suliman. 

The direct correlation between the Middle East’s prosperity over the last 50 to 70 years with the rise in obesity rates is alarming. “It will increase in the coming years,” she adds.

While some may have a genetic predisposition to become obese, Dr. Joseph says there’s a lot more at play. “More than 50 genes associated with obesity have been identified, but obesity results from multiple factors beyond genetics.” 

EARLY CHILDHOOD OBESITY 

Amid the primary health concerns related to sedentary lifestyles, childhood obesity is a growing concern. 

WHO’s target of halting the increase in childhood obesity by 2025 is “unlikely to be met by any country,” says Dr. Suliman. 

According to WOF, the prevalence of obesity in children under five in the MENA region is the highest globally. The report also stated that obesity in children aged five to 19  in the Middle East has tripled since the 1980s, with some countries reporting rates as high as 15-20%. 

There are several contributing factors to obesity in children. As per Dr. Joseph, these include exposure to family members that promote unhealthy food, smoking during pregnancy, and formula-feeding babies. 

NIP IN THE BUD 

Dealing with obesity early on prevents serious health problems later in life. Despite the advancement of technology and medicine to treat obesity, there are simple ways to prevent obesity. “Obesity is not a choice; it is a disease”, says Dr. Suliman. 

Mild cases of obesity can be treated through lifestyle changes such as ensuring adequate sleep, drinking plenty of water, exercising, and being conscious of dietary choices. If that fails, the next step would be to explore medication or surgery.

The best method of keeping the weight off is bariatric surgery, says Dr. Suliman, which would be the best way forward for people with extreme cases of obesity. 

“Unfortunately, with the pressures of life, many people are more sedentary now,” she adds. Walking 10,000 steps a day should be the baseline. 

“There needs to be a massive effort from individuals, families, and the community, including governments, towards fostering better changes and implementing goal-oriented policies.” 

March 4 is World Obesity Day. It serves as an annual reminder to everyone about the importance of a healthy lifestyle, and an opportunity for stocktaking on how levels of obesity are growing year-on-year across the globe. 

The story is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Please seek the advice of your physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Clare McGrath Dawson is a Senior Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East who writes on tech, design, and culture. More

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