A Weighty Concern: Obesity and Fast Food in Dubai

In response to Dubai's growth and the consumer demand for variety, the fast food industry has thrived with many popular American chains, such as McDonalds, KFC and Subway, as well as numerous local quick-service options.
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Thinly sliced strips of potatoes hiss as they are submerged into dark bubbling liquid, while a trio of workers move busily behind the counter of a food court eatery.

One of the workers hoists golden-brown French fries from their steaming bath and carefully distributes them into paper containers as hundreds of mall goers pass by -- families seeking a cool escape to the scorching summer heat, groups of businessmen on their lunch breaks, young women clinging to their designer purchases and children celebrating their break from school.

Grandy Gomes and his son stand patiently at the edge of the counter where they are handed a tray topped with burgers and fries. They quickly make their way to a table in the busy food court.

"Over the years I've really seen Dubai flourish and do a lot," Gomes says as he unwraps his burger. "I don't think there could be any place in the world that could do as much at this pace."Gomes is a bank employee. He emigrated from Mumbai and has lived in Dubai since the early 1990s.

Since 1993, Dubai has experienced enormous growth and drastic transformation, with a population increase of more than 200 percent according to the government of Dubai's statistic center.

The city's fast-paced lifestyle is reflected in its towering skyscrapers and abundant access to thousands of restaurants, fast food outlets and shopping mall food courts, but the health impact of this cultural shift has caused a significant increase in obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

According to a study conducted by Phillips Healthcare, more than half of Emirati nationals living in Dubai are overweight, but less than 25 percent of those individuals acknowledge that they are overweight.

"In today's society, there is so much importance given to living healthy," says Gomes. "In the UAE, there is such a variety in food available and people continue to overeat without any exercise."

However, Dubai's convenience-driven culture makes healthy living difficult.

The crisis

In response to Dubai's growth and the consumer demand for variety, the fast food industry has thrived with many popular American chains, such as McDonalds, KFC and Subway, as well as numerous local quick-service options.

"Obesity is a big problem in this part of the world," says Waffa Al-Bassum, clinical dietician and diabetes educator at the Dr. Sulaiman Al Habib Medical Group. "It's an issue that's been going on for a while, and people need to understand that obesity is a disease and it needs to be treated as such."

Al-Bassum works with a wide range of Dubai citizens in all age groups and has found that her patients struggle most with a combination of high-calorie intake and lack of exercise.

"The local food is very high in fat, and people consume large quantities of carbohydrates in every meal," says Al-Bassum. "I always tell my patients: 'It is your choice -- this is your health and you know that things are not healthy.'"

Although Al-Bassum encourages her patients to eat unhealthy foods in moderation and develop a regular exercise routine, she says that the overwhelming convenience of poor food choices and the traditional diet of Emirati nationals have served as a catalyst for the obesity increase.Childhood obesity is another crucial problem that the UAE is facing, with its Ministry of Health recently reporting that nearly 40 percent of children are overweight throughout the country."It's a long-term commitment on everybody's part," says Al-Bassum. "The government is investing huge chunks of money in the Gulf related to healthcare, but it takes the effort of everyone."

Future outlook

Dubai's health crisis has occurred at a remarkably rapid rate that will continue to rise, unless significant changes can be made in the local lifestyle. However, even if these changes can be made, it could take decades to fix the crisis.

To promote healthier living and reduce the current trend, many private and government organizations have launched health education and awareness campaigns to spark changes in the everyday lives of Dubai's population.

Dr. Wafaa Ayesh, director of clinical nutrition at the Dubai Health Authority, began her tenure with the organization in 1986 and has participated in many of the DHA's nutrition initiatives."I was the DHA's first clinical dietician," Ayesh recalls. "When I came here, there was no specific regimen for patients -- it was all the same diet and the same pattern."

Over time, the DHA has grown with the population and now has a significantly larger focus on nutrition.

Among the efforts to reduce obesity, Dubai has followed the current worldwide trend of approaching nutrition education with child-focused initiatives.

These programs, which are often similar to the Let's Move! campaign in the U.S. spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama, aim to influence future generations by educating children.

In addition to her work at the DHA, which has partnered with many schools to promote nutrition and exercise, Ayesh and her colleagues founded Sweetkidz Support Group, a non-profit organization that aims to help parents with children diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes.

"Sweetkidz was made to educate children and their parents," says Ayesh. "When we first started, we took kids to a health camp in Italy, but now we have the camp here in the UAE."

After establishing her medical career as a surgeon and breast cancer specialist at a government hospital in Dubai, Dr. Ambreen Sayani decided to start Medi-Compass, a health education and awareness organization.

"Children are definitely the torchbearers for the future," says Sayani. "Right now, our work with children directly influences their parents and their own lifestyles, and in the future they will impact their children as well.

Instead of focusing entirely on educating people about obesity and healthy living, Medi-Compass focuses on slowly changing unhealthy habits that cause obesity -- hopefully eliminating these habits for future generations.

"It's very important to realize the impact that urbanization has on our health. Although the statistics are quite frightening, we should embrace that knowledge and awareness, but understand that education is not enough," says Sayani.

This story first appeared on The Pulitzer Center.

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