The roots of obesity pandemic

How Saudis have changed over 100 years


Saudi Gazette report

ABOUT a century ago, obesity was unheard of in Saudi society. On the contrary, hunger and poverty were so rampant that people would tie a rope around their waist to deaden hunger pangs.

The year 1909 is known in Saudi history as the "Hunger Year" because people barely had anything to eat. Most people survived on dates and milk alone and eating meat was a luxury they enjoyed once a year during Eid Al-Adha (the Feast of Sacrifice).

Economic conditions were harsh. Drought hit the villages. People sometimes had nothing to eat for months but for dry dates. Many children died of hunger. What was worse, plague spread like wild fire in rural areas, killing thousands. Some historical accounts state that cholera, not plague, killed thousands of people, in some cases wiping out entire villages.

The majority of Saudis today lead a sedentary lifestyle, consume high amounts of junk food and do not exercise regularly. Most are unaware of the real dangers obesity poses to their lives. Al-Riyadh newspaper explores how the obesity pandemic spread roots in Saudi society.

Following the unification of modern Saudi Arabia, economic conditions began to improve slowly. Then came the oil boom, with its many benefits and advantages to Saudi society. Economic status of households started to improve and living standards changed for the better. The newfound affluence completely transformed lifestyle in the Kingdom. People no longer had to worry about hunger and they could afford to eat whatever they wished. Obesity was not yet a social issue because people still led an active lifestyle. They moved around on foot and walked to work and back home as cars were a luxury that only a few could afford.

Year after year, the country’s economy improved more and more, and the household income started spiraling upward. Most people could afford to own cars and they indeed did.

People gradually switched to a sedentary lifestyle. They ate all sorts of fatty food and had little physical exertion. The number of restaurants offering unhealthy junk food increased. Hunger no longer existed but obesity with all its harmful side effects began to show its ugly face.

Obesity is continuing its upward trend in the Kingdom, burdening the country’s healthcare system and leading to a spike in related diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

A recent report revealed that 70 percent of men and 75 percent of women suffer from obesity, which is expected to be the main cause of death around the world in the coming few years and may even be responsible for the deaths of over 500,000 people globally every year.

Several studies have shown that obesity rates among children have risen sharply with over 3 million overweight children in Saudi Arabia, something which many believe is why Saudis rank the third laziest people around the world, according to Al-Riyadh newspaper.

Around 36 percent of Saudis suffer from morbid obesity, which is secondary to heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, arthritis and psychiatric problems.

Today a large number of obese Saudis try hard to lose weight, sometimes through short cuts such as gastric bypasses.

The causes of obesity are closely associated with people's psychological state. If someone is experiencing an emotional breakdown, he or she might gain weight quickly. Some studies indicated that low morale increases one’s appetite for food and makes people to consume large amount of calories. People sit in front of the TV or at work for long hours without engaging in any physical activity while eating unhealthy food.

With the alarming rate of obesity, gastric bypass surgeries have been on the increase. Obese persons who cannot lose weight by going on a diet have no option but go under the knife and have a gastric bypass to shed off the excess fat. In these surgeries, the doctor removes a large portion of a person’s stomach. The new sleeve-shaped stomach looks smaller than the original.

Following this surgery, patients feel full after eating small portions of food. They will lose weight fast as their appetite has gone down dramatically.