High Obesity Rates In The Middle East And North Africa

The traditional diet in many Arab nations contributes to high obesity rates.
The traditional diet in many Arab nations contributes to high obesity rates.

Obesity is a health condition of excessive body fat or being overweight that affects millions of people worldwide. An individual with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more is generally considered to be obese, while a BMI from 25 to 29.9 is classified as overweight. The CIA World Factbook developed a list that ranked countries based on obesity rates. While the highest ranking countries, those with the highest obesity rates, were primarily Pacific Island nations, many countries from the Middle East and North Africa also ranked highly. Kuwait has the highest obesity rate in the Middle East.

Obesity Is a Global Health Issue

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 1.9 billion adults, or about 39% of all adults throughout the world, were overweight in 2016. Additionally, 650 million of these adults were obese, which represents 13% of the global adult population. In the same year, the WHO determined that 340 million adolescents and children between ages 5 to 19 were either obese or overweight.

Harmful Effects of Obesity

Obesity-related diseases and complications are responsible for millions of deaths each year. Obesity is associated with life-threatening illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, several types of cancers, musculoskeletal disorders, and pregnancy complications. In addition to a decreased life expectancy, obesity often adversely impacts an individual’s daily life. The costs associated with treating obesity-related illnesses are also a significant economic burden on healthcare systems.

High Rates of Obesity in the Middle East and North Africa

With an obesity rate of 37.90, Kuwait is the 11th most obese nation in the world and has the highest obesity rate in the Middle East. Although the United States, which is located in North America, had the 12th highest obesity rate in the world, the next eight positions (13 through 20) are held by Middle Eastern and North African countries: Jordan (35.5), Saudi Arabia (35.4), Qatar (35.1), Lebanon (32.0), and the United Arab Emirates (31.7). Other countries in these regions, including Iraq (30.4), Bahrain (29.8), Syria (27.8), Oman (27.0), Morocco (26.1), and Iran (25.8) also ranks among the 50 most obese countries in the world.

Causes of High Obesity Rates in the Middle East and North Africa

Poor Urban Planning

Rapid urbanization and poor city planning have left little available space for outdoor physical activities in many of the cities in North Africa. For example, the unplanned construction of homes and highrise buildings to meet the demands of increasing populations have left little room for playgrounds, parks, and gardens. Additionally, overcrowding in schools means that physical education or gym classes are often removed from the daily schedule. Thus, children and adults in these cities find limited spaces to enjoy outdoor activities and therefore remain indoors most of the time.

Cultural Factors 

In many Middle Eastern countries, obesity rates are higher among women than men. This trend is often associated with cultural factors, particularly because some local cultures expect women to adhere to certain behavioral norms, both indoors or outdoors. For example, women in Saudi Arabia are usually not expected to work outside the home, and cannot travel or leave the home without the permission of a male guardian. These restrictions often limit women from participating in sports and other outdoor activities. Therefore, low levels of physical activity are a contributing factor in weight gain and obesity rates.

Interestingly, some countries in North Africa observe a tradition called leblouh, which is the practice of force-feeding young girls so that they are perceived to be healthy. This practice is linked to the association between body weight and wealth in such cultures, as it is believed that young women who have higher body weights will attract more marriage proposals. However, this practice has decreased in recent years, as more men claim that the association between body weight and perceived wealth is invalid. 

Unhealthy Dietary Habits

The traditional diet in many Arab nations contains high amounts of meat, carbohydrates, oil, and sugars, which contribute to high obesity rates in the Middle East and North Africa. However, most food was historically cooked in the home, and meals were more balanced and contained more nutrients. More recently, food consumption habits have changed drastically. As many economies in the region thrive due to oil production, diets based on fast food introduced by American food chains have become increasingly common. These foods, which are high in calories and low in nutrients, contribute to rising obesity rates in the Middle East.

Measures to Control Obesity

Several countries in the Middle East have taken steps to curb the growing obesity rates. For example, schools have been instructed to include physical activity as an integral part of the curriculum. Awareness programs about obesity-related health disorders have been introduced, and attempts have been made to discourage people, especially children, from getting addicted to fast food. It is hoped that these remedial measures will limit and decrease the growing obesity problem in the Middle East and North Africa.

The 10 Highest Obesity Rates in the Middle East and North Africa

RankCountryObesity Rate (%)
3Saudi Arabia35.4
6United Arab Emirates31.7

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