Health experts explain key factors to consider when tackling NCDs
The latest report from the World Obesity Federation, released on World Obesity Day (4 March), predicts that 51% of the world’s population will be overweight or obese by 2035 if current trends continue.
The report estimates that more than 4 billion people will be affected by rising obesity rates, especially in low- or middle-income countries in Africa and Asia. It also means that the economic impact of overweight and obesity could exceed $4 trillion over 12 years if prevention and treatment do not improve rapidly.
“This amounts to almost 3% of global GDP and is comparable to the impact of Covid-19 in 2020,” the report mentioned.
The World Health Organization defines obesity as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that poses a threat to health. A body mass index (BMI) over 25 is considered overweight, and over 30 is considered obese.
While low- and middle-income countries are most affected, obesity is also a growing problem in the UAE, with high rates in both children and adults.
According to the Global Obesity Observatory, the UAE has a national obesity risk score of 7/10 (with 10 being the highest risk), based on factors such as obesity prevalence, growth rate, and likelihood of meeting the 2025 target.
Dr. Henna Kutty, lifestyle medicine expert and holistic health coach, said: “The community needs to realize that obesity is not a cosmetic problem, but a serious health condition.” She added that being overweight or obese can lead to a variety of other diseases, including heart disease. Cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease, as well as stroke, sleep apnea, infertility, diabetes and high blood pressure.
The most common contributing factors to obesity and overweight in the UAE include an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, increasing reliance on unhealthy diets high in saturated fat, sugar and salt, and lack of physical activity.
“Sedentary life, physical inactivity and frequent unhealthy food choices are the main reasons for the rapid increase in the proportion of overweight and obese patients in our practice,” said Dr Mahir Shqeir, GP and board member. Physician at Reem Hospital, Abu Dhabi.
Get the basics right
According to Juhi Bhambaney, a Dubai-based clinical dietitian who handles overweight and obesity cases, gut health (gastrointestinal health) affects every aspect of a person’s health. Poor gut health can lead to poor mood and poor gut microbiome health, which can affect metabolism and lead to overweight and obesity.
A healthy diet that includes adequate protein and a plant-based eating pattern, along with regular exercise and exercise, is essential to eradicate these problems. Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein is essential to maintaining a healthy weight. Avoiding processed and junk foods, high-calorie beverages, and excess sugar and saturated fat can help prevent obesity.
“Avoid eating out as much as possible and only eat 2-3 meals a week,” says Juhi. “You can try to choose options that give you some nutritional value. For example: Asian and Mediterranean cuisines often have vegetables in many meals, so you can choose those and avoid high-fat meals.”
Mindful eating can also help monitor hunger levels to avoid overeating. Paying attention to your body’s hunger and fullness cues can help promote healthy weight management.
While prevention sounds fairly simple, given the “eat right and exercise” mantra all over the internet, how much of the prevention process actually comes down to personal choice?
Although BMI is a screening tool, it’s not always a diagnostic tool, Dr. Henna added. “There are many reasons why a person is at risk for obesity, and it’s not always about appearance. The person may look fit and still have excess body fat.”
Book by Stephan Guyenet, hungry brain, proposes the theory that weight gain is not primarily a product of a lack of willpower, but rather an evolutionary mismatch between our brains, genetics, and environment. He argues that our brains have evolved to respond to certain cues, such as high-calorie foods, as signals of abundance and safety, thus encouraging us to eat more.
A restaurant worker prepares a diet meal for a customer in Riyadh. – Agence France-Presse
“If a young child walks by a McDonald’s and smells these burgers, he or she is naturally attracted to the smell,” Dr. Henna noted, adding that in most cases these signals are already present at birth. Presence, naturally increases one’s cravings for junk food as one grows up. “Genetic predisposition increases the risk of weight gain and interacts with other risk factors in the environment, such as an unhealthy diet and an inactive lifestyle.”
Guyenet suggests that to tackle obesity, people need to understand and address the underlying causes of overeating, rather than simply relying on willpower and self-control. It requires creating environments that promote healthy behaviors, such as limiting the availability of unhealthy foods and promoting physical activity, as well as improving understanding of the complex biological and psychological factors that contribute to obesity.
“Achieving positive outcomes requires a lot of advocacy and clinical practice around a positive mindset shift,” said Dr. Henna.
The need for work-life balance
A good work-life balance can help people avoid the triggers that often lead them to unhealthy eating habits. “Prioritizing work-life balance will help you allocate time to meal prep and regular exercise,” says Juhi.
According to nutritionists, obesity and overweight are challenges that arise due to multiple factors, each of which can adversely affect the other. Juhi cites a 32-year-old woman who consulted her about her weight-loss requirements: “She would skip meals, eat mostly from restaurants, and due to her busy schedule, her gut health had been poor, she didn’t sleep well, and she was stressed. She also Suffering from insulin resistance, all of which point to a lack of work-life balance.”
Simple steps like planning and meal prepping can help ensure your diet is healthy and balanced and prevent the temptation to eat unhealthy foods.
A better work-life balance can also lead to getting enough sleep, which is essential for maintaining a healthy weight. Dr. Henna added that poor sleep habits can disrupt hormones that regulate appetite, leading to overeating and weight gain.
“One of the things that the UAE government has done is to take this step towards a four-and-a-half-day work week,” said Dr Parag Rane, a specialist and laparoscopic surgeon at Zulekha Hospital.
“This is great for prioritizing work-life balance because now people have more time for themselves, which means it’s easier for them to incorporate exercise into their daily routine.
“Reducing working hours is definitely going to make people more productive, it’s definitely going to improve people’s health,” he added.
Stress Factors and Emotional Eating
Given the ultra-busy lives most people lead today, mental health issues are more common than ever. “Many of us cannot address the psychological issues we experience every day, such as stress, sadness, anxiety,” says Dr. Henna.
“People are under chronic stress, which puts the body in constant ‘fight or flight’ mode, which leads to an increase in stress hormones, which further increases fat storage,” she adds.
Additionally, if we don’t get to the root cause of our emotions, it can lead to mindless eating habits and overeating to temporarily fill the emotional void we may be experiencing through overeating “comfort foods.” “In the age of instant gratification, emotional eating has become commonplace. We seek comfort either through social media or through food. This leads to a no-hunger diet, especially with high-calorie foods,” Juhi said.
“It’s important to prioritize stress management and mental health because it’s a major contributor to obesity.”
Tackling childhood obesity
Obesity and its risk factors are somewhat of a social norm, Dr. Henna noted. “It’s not just affecting adults, it’s affecting children as well. Clearly, we’ve created an unhealthy generation of people who have developed a palpable reliance on processed sugar and junk food that is now considered normal.”
A 2019 study also reported that childhood obesity is one of the biggest healthcare challenges facing the UAE. “Childhood obesity is a major public health problem,” Dr. Parag said.
“In children who become obese as a result of overfeeding or eating a high-calorie diet, both the number of cells and the size of fat cells increase. If you were obese in childhood and successfully lost weight, if your lifestyle changes, you may Gain weight again in adulthood. Then it becomes very difficult to treat.”
The Ministry of Health and Prevention launched the National Nutrition Strategy 2022-2030, which aims to create healthier school environments and coordinate efforts to encourage healthy eating habits. “The UAE is taking many steps in this direction. The country is committed to reducing childhood obesity through effective collaboration with all stakeholders to promote strategic policy, systemic and environmental change,” said Dr Henna.
Build a support system
Seeking support from friends, family or a healthcare professional can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight. A support system can provide motivation, accountability, and guidance for making healthy lifestyle changes.
Accountability is a great way to develop healthy habits when dealing with NCDs. “Work with a health coach who will help you set realistic health goals and provide guidance for accountability,” advises Dr. Henna.
Taking greater responsibility for your actions can also start in the home environment. “As a physician, I believe in addressing obesity as a family. Results are better when each family member motivates each other. Certain tasks, such as exercising together, preparing grocery lists, and meal planning as a family, may are a fun and effective way to develop healthy habits,” she said, adding that healthier families will start to build healthier communities.
Finally, it’s equally important to do baseline checks from time to time to avoid any long-term problems. “Check your weight and BMI regularly, and if your BMI increases above 25, you should see a professional clinician to start an appropriate diet, exercise and behavior plan to start losing weight,” says Dr. Maher.
“Especially if people have obesity-related complications, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels and coronary artery disease.”