Most of us are already aware of the effects that poor diets and a sedentary lifestyle have on adults, with increased chances of illnesses such as heart disease being just one.
But doctors are also warning that the damage can start from a young age. High levels of obesity among youngsters in the Middle East region, including Oman and the UAE, leaves them open to developing diabetes and the associated health conditions.
According to the International Diabetes Federation, there were 803,900 diabetics in the UAE last year. This is almost 20 per cent of the population. Chad, a country with a slighter larger population than the UAE, reported just 264,600 cases of diabetes in 2014. This makes for compelling reading, especially since it suggests that the lifestyle and diet in the Gulf region is not only posing serious health risks to its residents, but that the area is lagging behind globally in its efforts to curb the disease.
In Oman, the figures are no less alarming. Children as young as 10 are being classed as obese and heart disease victims are getting younger. Obese adolescents are more likely to have pre-diabetes, a condition where blood glucose levels suggest future development of diabetes.
Arabian countries are, research has shown, more genetically predisposed to diseases such as diabetes.
One of the risk factors for the chronic condition is obesity and results from the Global Burden of Disease Study in 2013, conducted by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, reveal that more than 66 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women are obese. Statistics from the World Health Organization reveal that 30 percent of the world’s population is obese, meaning that the obesity rate in the UAE is double the world average. Alarmingly, a study conducted by the Public Health Research Centre, part of the New York University Abu Dhabi, last year revealed that the incidence of obesity in the age group six to 10 years old is 20 per cent and at 40 per cent in the 11-19 years age group in the UAE.
“These figures are staggering and are a clear indicator why the UAE has such a high rate of the chronic, debilitating condition,” says Dr Nashwa Bahaa el Din, a specialist in pediatrics at Abu Dhabi’s Burjeel Hospital, which also operates in Muscat.
“Many people don’t even know they have the disease, which is why awareness is so important. If we don’t act now to prevent diabetes, by 2035, one in every 10 people in the world will have the disease.
“Aside from the devastating health consequences for people with unmanaged diabetes, the economic impact will be considerable,” she continues.
Type 2 diabetes is becoming increasingly prevalent across the UAE and GCC countries and is starting to affect all age groups, including the very young. Insulin resistance is usually associated with obesity, stress and physical inactivity.
Dr Nashwa attributes these factors to causing an increase of type 2 diabetes in the country, especially with the emergence and popularity of fast food and the hot summer months acting as a deterrent to exercise.
“With both parents usually working, families opt for pre-cooked or packaged meals which are high in bad fats, sugar and sodium,” adds Dr Nashwa. “Children start eating unhealthy at an early age and as they usually kill time with video games or with computers, the sedentary lifestyle leads to obesity, hence puts them at major risk for diabetes.”
Recently, approximately 50 per cent of parents interviewed for a study said that they regularly give their young kids unhealthy food, including those high in sugars, because their children asked for it. They said they did so in spite of knowing the harmful effects of sugar. The study was done by YouGov for Al Aan TV’s programme, Nabd Al Arab (Arab’s Pulse) and English daily newspaper, The National.
“It is important for parents to start inculcating healthy dietary habits amongst children at an early age to curb the diabetes epidemic,” advises Dr Nashwa. “Children look to emulate parents so they should set a good example by adopting an active lifestyle. For example take your child to the park every evening to ride your bicycles together, this would keep them active and you also get to spend quality time with your kids.”
While there is no recognised cure for the condition, Dr Nashwa recommends getting checked if you or your children have any one of the following symptoms:
If left untreated, diabetes can lead to blindness, kidney failure and cardiovascular disease.
Once diagnosed, the best way to manage diabetes is through exercise and diet.
“But diabetes can be avoided through a healthy lifestyle and living environments that encourage healthy habits,” says Dr Nashwa.