The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a country in the Middle East with a population of 3.1 million people. Over the last 30 years, the UAE has experienced rapid socio-cultural changes that have been brought about by the growing economy of the Arabian Gulf Region due to the discovery of oil (Bin Zaal, Musaiger & D’Souza 2009). UAE citizens have undergone significant lifestyle changes including a massive transition from deficiency diseases and under nutrition towards degenerative diseases that are associated with over-nutrition. There have been significant changes in food choices leading to a “nutritional transition” (Al-Haddad, Al-Nuaimi, Little & Thabit, 2000). According to the World Health Organization (2000), nutrition plays a crucial role in affecting the weight of a populace because the changes in economic and social environments have highly significant influences on calorific intake. Physical activity and recreational patterns of people in a given place also play a part in the influences that emanate from effects of nutritional intake.
Improper nutrition often leads to a variety of health conditions such as obesity, nutrition deficiency diseases such as goitre, kwashiorkor among others. In the context of the UAE, nutritional challenges have heralded obesity which has resulted into several health concerns. Obesity is described as a medical condition in which body fat accumulates to the extent of causing risks to the health of the victim. It is measured as the Body Mass Index (BMI)- calculated by dividing the weight (Kg) of a person to the person’s square of height (M) (Seidell & Flegal, 1997). One is considered overweight when the BMI is between 25 and obese when the BMI is higher than 30 (Seidell & Flegal, 1997).
Students in fast growing economies such as the UAE are increasingly becoming exposed to unhealthy eating habits which lead to increased weight gain (Huang et al, 2003). The etiology of obesity in UAE can be attributed to consumption of energy dense foods that have a high fat content (Bin Zaal, Musaiger & D’Souza 2009). The “westernization” of eating habits among the residents of the UAE has led to increased rates of obesity in the region. It is the prevalence of obesity in UAE over the last 20 years that raises alarm. According to Bin Zaal, Musaiger and D’Souza (2009) childhood obesity in UAE has increased dramatically to surpass the obesity levels in the USA and Europe.
The study by Bin Zaal, Musaiger and D’Souza, (2009) was aimed to find the association between dietary habits and other behavioral factors that have increased risk of obesity in the UAE. Using a multistage stratified random sampling technique, the study used 324 boys and 337 girls aged 12-17 years. The study found out that the highest percentage of obesity was observed among boys aged 14 years (30.5%) and in girls aged 13 years (35.4%). Among girls, the significance of eating breakfast (P=0.048) and snacks between breakfast and lunch (P=0.044) was relatively higher compared to that in boys (Bin Zaal, Musaiger & D’Souza 2009).
In both boys and girls, there was high risk of obesity among school going children who ate breakfast in school. In the study, fast foods showed a highly significant association with the levels of obesity especially among girls (P=0.007). Fast foods had a lesser significance in causing obesity among boys (P=0.745). Boys who consumed fast foods at home were at a bigger risk of being overweight as compared to girls who did the same at home (Bin Zaal, Musaiger & D’Souza 2009).
A study by Al-Haddad, et al (2000) on the prevalence of obesity among school children in the UAE using BMI as the indicator showed that there were strong similarities between obesity levels in the USA and those in the UAE. The study used 1,787 males and 2,288 females. The sample population aged 6-16 years. The study showed that the foods most commonly associated with obesity among school going children include carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
The excessive intake of these foods followed by low inactivity is the main cause of obesity among all people. Diet, lifestyle and education are the key factors contributing to increased levels of obesity in UAE. Diet tops the list especially among school going children. This can be attributed to biological processes in teenagers, increased activity and increased appetite to cope with the growth spurt. Teenagers tend to have a massive appetite, and on this account, diet and nutrition become the main causative agents of obesity. School-going children in the UAE consume foods rich in carbohydrates, fats and proteins such as pizzas, high-fat burgers and protein rich drinks such as milkshakes (Al-Haddad, Al-Nuaimi, Little & Thabit 2000). In spite of these foods being relatively expensive, children in the UAE can afford to consume them regularly because the economy of the country has expanded and the populace including children has more disposable income.
A further study by Abdel, Abdelkarem and El-Fetouh (2008) considered 132 males and 180 females with a mean age of 21.1+/- 2.8 years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia showed a significant relationship between health habits, nutritional screen and lifestyle practices. In this study, the daily food consumption was recorded for all the sample respondents. Nutritional analysis performed, and Blood pressure (BP) were then measured. The study showed that a quarter of the respondents had a BMI more than 25 and hence overweight. 235 of the male respondents were overweight and 7% obese as compared to 19% overweight females and 6% obese of the female students (Abdel, Abdelkarem & El-Fetouh 2008). The study also noted that consumption of fats led to an increment in the BMI and the BP in both the male and female respondents. Moreover, the better the economic disposition of the respondents the higher was their intake of fats and hence the increment in obesity levels among those more economically affluent. Salty foods were also noted to cause an increase in the BP.
Whereas fats and salts increased the BMI and the BP of the respondents, there was a negative correlation between the consumption of grains, fiber, beans and fruits to the BMI and the BP in both genders (Abdel, Abdelkarem & El-Fetouh, 2008). The data in this case was collected through self-reported questionnaires that were administered to several volunteer students. The data collected included the personal and socio-economic data of the respondents, age, marital status, occupation and education as well as history of obesity in the family. This last bit of information was necessary in order to help establish whether weight gain was as a result of genetics or emanated from the nutrition of the respondents (Abdel, Abdelkarem & El-Fetouh, 2008).
The second part included nutritional screening featuring 11 questions on the frequency of meals and their nutritional composition. On one hand respondents answered question on the frequency of consuming health foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans, as opposed to fatty foods, salty foods, sugary foods, meats, dairy products among others. This type of assessment where there is a deep emphasis on nutritional screening lays bare the impacts of certain nutritional classes over others. It is the core of this study and the administration of such as study through questionnaires helps the researcher obtain accurate, credible and verifiable information (Huang et al, 2003). Moreover, the subsequent method of analyzing the data obtained through statistical software such as SPSS and Chi-squared tests helps obtain accurate p-values made on the basis of 2-tailed tests. This way the validity of certain nutritional classes contributing to obesity can be rightly analyzed.
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