Qatar’s struggle with obesity in recent years actually appears to date back to the 1980s, according to a new global report that found the Gulf country has been making few strides in this arena over the past three decades.
According to the report, Qatar is among the world’s top five countries for overweight and obese adults, while its girls are the heaviest they have been in 30 years.
The study looked at the prevalence of obesity in 188 countries between 1980 and 2013, and was recently published in medical journal The Lancet by an international consortium of researchers led by the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle.
“Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980–2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013” was funded by the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation.
According to the report, Qatar has the highest incidence of obese men – 44 percent – in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Meanwhile, Qatar comes in third place regionally in terms of obesity in women, with more than half (55 percent) classified as such. Qatar is just behind Kuwait (59 percent) and Libya, where 57 percent of women are classified as obese.
Those who are considered overweight have a height-weight body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more, while the definition of obesity is with a BMI of 30 or more.
In what researchers described as a “first-of-its-kind” study, figures for Qatar reveal that even back in 1980, it was the fourth fattest country in the world – with 71 percent of its male adults (20 years old and over) and three-quarters (74 percent) of its female adults classified as overweight or obese.
The full table of international results can be downloaded and viewed here.
In the following 33 years, Qatar’s population continued to put on weight. By 2013, the prevalence of overweight and obese people had risen 5 percent.
That means that some 76 percent of Qatar’s adult males and 79 percent of its adult females are overweight or obese, according to 2013 figures.
Interestingly, although Qatar’s population has continued to pile on the pounds, so has much of the rest of the world, putting Qatar now in fifth place globally in terms of its prevalence of overweight and obese adults.
The global table of results for adults can be downloaded here.
The obesity levels in Qatar go hand-in-hand with its diabetes rate, which is one of the highest in the world, according to the International Diabetes Association.
Nearly a quarter of residents here live with the disease, which can increase the risk of health complications such as kidney disease and blindness, as well as shortened lifespans.
In the past, healthcare experts have said Qatar’s harsh climate, which can limit opportunities for exercise, reliance on cars as a means of transportation and love of fast food all contribute to its population putting on weight.
One of the most worrying trends from the report is in the rates of obesity among Qatar’s children – particularly its young girls.
In 1980, 12.4 percent of girls under the age of 20 were considered overweight or obese. This figure has nearly doubled to 22.1 percent as of last year.
In a statement, Marie Ng, Assistant Professor of Global Health at IHME and the paper’s lead author, said:
“We know that there are severe downstream health effects from childhood obesity, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and many cancers. We need to be thinking now about how to turn this trend around.”
Obesity is even more prevalent among Qatar’s male population – one-third (33.5 percent) of all boys under 20 years are classified as overweight or obese. That’s the highest figure in the MENA region, ahead of Libya and Lebanon, where 33 percent of their boys are overweight/obese.
However, this figure has come down from a peak in 1990, when 35.5 percent of all boys in Qatar were overweight or obese. This could be because Qatar is expending more effort to reduce youth obesity and get the population moving through initiatives like National Sport Day.
Overall, the weight of Qatar’s boys has increased only 2.7 percent over the past three decades. The latest figures come as healthcare experts have been warning Qatar of the implications of obesity in children.
Last year, Julian Hamilton-Shield, professor of Diabetes and Endocrinology at the University of Bristol in the UK, told Doha News that unless a major cultural shift takes place, Qatar’s childhood obesity epidemic could lead to many children dying years before their parents.
He said children needed to take more exercise out of school hours, to have healthier lunch boxes and that vending machines in schools should be banned.
Qatar’s population is significantly heavier than the average for the Middle East and North Africa, though weight problems are pervasive in the region. Key findings of the study in the region found:
- More than 58 percent of MENA men were overweight/obese in 2013;
- More than 65 precent of MENA women were overweight/obese in 2013;
- More than three-quarters of the countries in the region had overweight and obesity rates of more than 50 percent among both men and women; and
- Overall, there are an estimated 259 million overweight (180 million) or obese (79 million) people living in the region today.
Addressing these results, Director of Middle Eastern Initiatives at IHME Ali Mokdad said in a statement:
“Obesity is growing unchecked throughout the region and threatens to undo the success the region has seen in improving health for the past three decades.”
Worldwide, the study found that today, 2.1 billion people—nearly one-third of the world’s population—are overweight or obese.
And being overweight or obese is also a major problem for the world’s children. From 1980 to 2013, the prevalence of overweight and obesity in children increased by nearly 50 percent.
The report’s authors’ describe the rise in global obesity rates over the last three decades as “substantial and widespread, presenting a major public health epidemic in both the developed and the developing world.”
Dr. Christopher Murray, director of IHME and a co-founder of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, said:
“In the last three decades, not one country has achieved success in reducing obesity rates, and we expect obesity to rise steadily as incomes rise in low- and middle-income countries in particular, unless urgent steps are taken to address this public health crisis.”