America’s obesity problem has spread to the Middle East

Bon appétit.
Bon appétit.
Image: Reuters/Amr Dalsh
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In news that surprised no one, the US National Center for Health Statistics released data on Thursday (Dec. 20) that the average American has become heavier over the last two decades. The average adult in the US is now overweight, verging on obese.

The US has long been a punchline for its expanding waistlines. Yet most parts of the world have also grown heavier in recent decades. And one region, the Arab Gulf, has grown shockingly heavier in recent years, thanks to the rise of an American-style culture of ubiquitous cars, air conditioning, and fast food.

Three of the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council are among the top 15 countries with the highest body mass index worldwide (BMI, while an imperfect measure, remains the international standard for measuring body fat). Kuwait took the number three spot, and Qatar and the UAE respectively took the eighth and 11th spot. The US came in at 17th.

Adult obesity rates in the US top 35% in some states. Meanwhile, the rate of obesity is 40% in Kuwait, 42% in Qatar, and 37% in the UAE, according to a 2016 report by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

The biggest underlying factor appears to be the rapid rise in living conditions in the Gulf region in the last couple of decades. It’s likely no coincidence that Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE are countries whose economies have skyrocketed in a short time thanks in large part to plentiful oil and gas resources. Between 2000 and 2017, Kuwait’s GDP went from $37 billion to $120 billion, Qatar’s from $17 billion to $167 billion, and the UAE’s from $100 billion to $382 billion, according to World Bank figures. Qatar today has the world’s highest GDP per capita, with Kuwait and the UAE coming in at sixth and ninth, respectively.

That money has fueled a stark change in diet—mirroring tastes that dominated the US in its post-World War II boom. For example, one study cited by the EIU found Saudis aged 20–30 ate fast food on average three times or more per week. (Saudi Arabia took the 21st spot for the world’s highest BMI.) Saudis also get more than 30% of their sugar intake from soda, and in the UAE fast-food spending rose more than any other country in the world between 2000 and 2015, according to Euromonitor International.

The Arab Gulf had traditionally been sparsely populated, characterized by bedouin culture. Urbanization, coupled with sprawl that encourages car use, has seen much of its inhabitants go sedentary as calorie intake has shot up. The region’s harsh weather—topping 50°C (122°F) in summertime peaks—and a rise in air conditioning has fueled the transformation, pushing more people indoors and away from daily exercise.

The good news is that the region’s officials are taking note. In June last year, Saudi Arabia became the first Gulf state to implement a sugar tax to curb consumption—slapping sodas with a 50% levy. When you consider that Saudi Arabia has no income tax and not many consumption taxes, that’s a remarkable step. The UAE followed suit in October last year.

But when you consider the region’s decades-long rising obesity rates, much like elsewhere in the world, more can be done. And cultural attitudes, like blaming genetic factors, as experts warn some citizens do, surely isn’t helping.