Ris­ing obe­sity pre­ventable with few steps: ex­perts

Lebanon has high over­weight rates across all age groups, sym­po­sium hears

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Morten Larsen

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.

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