Rising obesity preventable with few steps: experts
Lebanon has high overweight rates across all age groups, symposium hears
BEIRUT: We’re getting fat; too many of us in Lebanon are inactive and overeating, experts warned as the world marked International Day Against Obesity this week.
The rising rate of obesity in Lebanon, as in many parts of the world, is worrying some of the foremost experts in the field, who gathered at the Symposium on Preventing Obesity in the MENA Region Wednesday evening at The American University of Beirut.
“From 1997 to 2009 [Lebanon] went from 17.4 percent to 28.2 percent [of the adult population being] obese, and from 7.3 to 9.9 percent of children and adolescents,” Dr. Lara Nasreddine, professor of nutrition and an expert on dietary assessments in relation to obesity, said in her presentation.
“We have high rates of obesity across all age groups [but] of more concern is that it is increasing. It’s still escalating, we haven’t reached a plateau yet,” she told The Daily Star after her talk at the conference.
Obesity is linked to several major health problems, such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. These co-morbidity factors particularly concern Nasreddine.
“[Some] 83 percent of the deaths in the country is attributed to chronic diseases that are directly associated to obesity,” she said.
Nasreddine said this rise has been caused by the fact that Lebanon is in the middle of what experts call a “nutrition transition.”
More and more high-energy, low nutrition foods – junk food for example – are available and consumed, but the extra energy is not being spent as people are not active enough and so it is instead stored as fat. This evolution, the experts say, is especially visible in the younger generation.
“We are going to have the highest rate in the region of underage obesity,” Nasreddine warned, predicting that with the current trend, 29 percent of preschoolers in Lebanon will be obese in 2020.
In detailed slides with statistics and graphs, Nasreddine went over the factors that increase the likelihood of obesity in preschool children, such as eating in front of the TV, and the factors that decrease that likelihood, “relating to traditional dietary ways.”
“Western food is high in fat, with sugary drinks and sweet snacks, which of course make you gain weight, where the traditional diet is healthy,” she said.
Besides eating more traditionally and following other risk-decreasing factors, there are very tangible steps to be taken – literal steps.
“Physical inactivity increases the risk of getting 35 diseases, obesity is one of them,” said athletics therapist Dr. Tarek Gherbal during his presentation at the symposium, before asking: “Who thinks physical activity means ‘exercise?’”
Few people in the auditorium raised their hands.
“Physical activity just means ‘you being active,’” he answered. “So, no matter how tempting the escalator is, take the healthier option. We are blessed that the electricity goes out, love the stairs,” he shouted out to the laughing audience.
Contacted for comment on government plans for combatting obesity, neither the health minister nor his advisers were available for comment.
A 2015 study by researchers at Cambridge University, titled “The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition” looked at the link between obesity and inactivity. It found that a 20-minute daily walk could reduce the risk of dying early by 16-30 percent.
But there is just one issue with that in Lebanon.
“Beirut is not made to walk,” said Marco Bardus, assistant professor at the Department of Health Promotion and Community Health at AUB. To demonstrate his point, he showed pictures of parked cars and lamp posts filling the sidewalks across Beirut.
Bardus said this was the exact opposite of what a city should be and highlighted that Lebanese municipalities should encourage activity through “engaging environmental changes,” such as having healthy choices first in school cafeterias or having more walkable streets.
Bardus pointed out that behavioral changes can be hard to establish, which is why there should be some “nudging” to help people along. However, he did encourage everyone to spend more time reflecting on their own choices.
“We need to do something about our own behavior. It’s probably better to take the bike next year, be involved in the discussion, create or demand spaces for health,” he said.
Most of the speakers highlighted the positive effect of physical activity and the need for having public spaces to be active in, but none more so than Jawad Sbeity, founder of Beirut by Bike.
“We don’t want gyms, we want change in [public space] policies,” he said in his address.
Sbeity helped lobby for the 100 meters of bicycle lane through Downtown Beirut, which is often mocked, he said.
But, he said, he will do it again, and with any municipality willing to cooperate. Because a city with a walking or biking community is a healthy city, he said.
“Look all over Europe, the cities that have walking communities, biking communities, compared to others – again there are studies – [are healthier]” he said.
Sbeity pointed to U.N. initiatives calling for government action to promote more active lifestyles – such as the Global Move for Health Day started in 2003.
“Just movement, regular movement and that’s enough,” Sbeity said. “So we’re not asking to have gyms, we’re not asking to have sports towns, [we’re] just asking people to move and be active.”
For him, the way to make that possible was clear. “Public spaces, nothing else. Give [people] the freedom to have places in order to enjoy walking,” he said.
However, he said he wasn’t very optimistic that municipalities would actually improve the public space for physical activity.
“We, as Lebanese, lost hope in asking for our rights. So when I cry, when I cry and shout out, ‘guys, please ask for your rights,’ it is because of frustration,” Sbeity told to The Daily Star after the symposium.
“Ask for your rights. Biking is one of those rights.”
‘We don’t want gyms, we want change in [public space] policies’
The rising rate of obseity in Lebanon is worrying some of the foremost experts in the field.