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Five ways for GCC countries to battle obesity

Article-Five ways for GCC countries to battle obesity

Shutterstock obesity
Steps to adopt a holistic approach focused on prevention and treatment across the entire spectrum of care.

Obesity is a growing global public health issue and a significant economic burden for governments around the world. It is especially problematic for GCC countries, which have some of the world’s highest obesity rates. Obesity is also a key risk factor for non-communicable diseases such as hypertension and diabetes, which currently account for 70 per cent to 80 per cent of deaths in the region.

Related: Obesity: A global epidemic that requires immediate attention

Obesity is a chronic disease caused by a complex interaction between environmental, social, commercial, and genetic factors. It typically arises in environments that encourage high food consumption rates with low physical activity levels. In the GCC, obesity is exacerbated by such factors as high levels of wealth, increased spending on unhealthy foods, and extreme outdoor temperatures which discourage physical activity. Additionally, the cultural emphasis on food as a centrepiece of family and socialising can lead to poor eating choices.

In response, GCC governments can adopt a holistic approach that focuses on preventing and treating obesity across the entire spectrum of care. That means a data-driven approach and collaboration between the public and private sectors to incentivise healthier behaviours and support new treatment methods. GCC governments can implement five recommendations:

  1. Develop a data and pilot-driven approach: Start by conducting a baseline assessment of factors such as obesity prevalence, nutrition and food supply standards, labelling, and taxes. With these data, GCC countries can set ambitious targets that are also attainable. Furthermore, to get the most out of their efforts and resources, they should start on a small scale first, and scale up when these initiatives prove effective.
  2. Focus efforts on youth: Countries with the most success in addressing obesity typically target children since they are more likely than adults to change lifestyles and behaviours. For example, Australia’s introduction of school-based interventions to promote healthy eating and physical activity led to a drop in obesity prevalence in children from 20 per cent in 2015 to 17 per cent in 2018. However, it is critical to tailor programmes to the specific conditions of each school and community. Effective interventions in GCC schools could include regulations that mandate healthy food provision, offer educational content on healthy lifestyles, and provide funding programmes for sports facilities and events.
  3. Foster collaboration between government, local communities, and commercial players: Encouraging healthier and culturally appropriate eating options is a model that has worked well in several countries. For example, the JOGG programme in the Netherlands was launched in 2010 and brings together parents, health professionals, stores, food producers, and schools to promote physical activity and healthier food options. It ultimately led to a 9 per cent reduction in child obesity and is on track to accumulate health expenditure savings of 52 euros per individual by 2050.
  4. Use taxes and labelling regulations to incentivise healthier eating: Most GCC countries began implementing sugar taxes in 2017, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE currently apply a 50 per cent to 100 per cent tax on most sweetened beverages. However, the scope and reach of sugar taxes in the region is limited. Furthermore, governments can use the revenues collected from these taxes to fund health and fitness programmes. Labelling is another powerful lever to educate populations and reduce obesity. For instance, disclosing calorie information on restaurant menus in the U.S. led to a reduction of around 60 to 100 calories consumed per meal, while the introduction of the “Nutri-Score” system in France in 2017 led to a significant increase in healthier food purchases.
  5. Treat obesity as a disease and enable the provision and insurance coverage of non-traditional treatment methods: A stepped treatment approach is necessary, with clear guidelines for different care levels. Newer treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness-based therapy have proven effective in helping individuals recognise and change their eating and exercise patterns. Other treatments, like GLP-1 agonists and SGLT-2 inhibitors, offer promising solutions for advanced cases. For example, in 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the first GLP-1 agonist for obesity and diabetes treatment (liraglutide), which has the potential to lead to a yearly weight loss of 5kg per patient. It is paramount that GCC governments review current insurance coverage regulations and consider incorporating some of these new forms of treatment.

Related: The risk of inaction over lack of exercise in the Gulf region

By taking a holistic approach to obesity, GCC governments can achieve tangible results, including longer lifespans, improved quality of life, and cost savings for individuals and governments. We estimate that reducing overweight prevalence in the GCC by 5 per cent by 2030 could save over 50,000 lives and 2.2 million daily-adjusted life years over the next decade.

In that same period, economic savings could reach up to US$100 billion, including US$12 billion in medical savings. By taking on this problem, GCC governments can reverse the trend of chronic illness and put their countries on the path to a healthier future.

2a Jan Schmitz-Hubsch.jpg     2b Antoine Feghali-min.JPG     2c Arianna Espinosa.PNG

Jan Schmitz-Hubsch is the Partner, Antoine Feghali is the Principal; and Arianna Espinosa is the Manager at Strategy& Middle East, part of the PwC network. 

This article appears in Omnia Health magazine. Read the full issue online today.      

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