Food and society

Junk food strikes rich as well as poor

The paradox of the Gulf States is revealed in data collected and analysed by the Food Sustainability Index: in these nations awash with wealth there still exists qualitative malnutrition. Junk food consumption is prevalent, diabetes is a common mortality risk and these factors place a significant strain on local health systems.

Wealth does not always go hand in hand with food sustainability: such is the case in the Gulf States which, according to the Food Sustainability Index developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in collaboration with the BCFN, occupy a low ranking in terms of food quality and suffer actual qualitative malnutrition as well as health problems linked to high consumption of junk food. The facts are reflected in the general state of health of the local population.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 19% of residents of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia suffer from type 2 diabetes, the form most closely linked to an unhealthy lifestyle. What’s more, according to a survey by the Diabetes Federation, over 40% of people who live in the area and have raised blood sugar levels are not diagnosed in a timely manner, with costly effects in terms of disease complications and subsequent financial strain on local health systems.

Bad food, sedentary lifestyles and waste

The Food Sustainability Index, which focuses on food sustainability, offers some suggestions as to the cause of this epidemic: a nutritionally poor diet (though not necessarily poor in economic terms), food which increasingly resembles the worst that the West has to offer (including pre-packaged and junk food), and a widespread sedentary lifestyle have all led to an increase in the average weight of the population (70% of residents in the region are overweight) and to chronic illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease which are associated with qualitative malnutrition.

The problem, once limited to the male population, has also spread to women in recent years, with over 20% of expectant women suffering from gestational diabetes. The leading cause of this high incidence amongst women is a sedentary lifestyle, compounded by local traditions which makes it very difficult for women to regularly take part in sport.

With the cost of healthcare for diabetes close to $500 million per annum in the United Arab Emirates alone, it is not surprising that the local government is now keen to redress the situation with educational campaigns on healthier eating and large investment in research to find a definitive cure for diabetes. 

Prevention, however, is still the key. Educational campaigns must be tailored to the local population who on average enjoy a high income and purchase a lot of food. It is worth noting that in Saudi Arabia the average person throws away 427kg of food each year, while in the United Arab Emirates, this number "falls" to 196.6kg per capita.

Shifting spending choices away from highly calorific foods such as desserts and meats toward healthier foods such as fruit and vegetables is one of the biggest challenges facing local authorities. Other compounding factors are a challenging farming situation caused by lack of natural rainfall and cultivation methods which, according to the FSI, depend primarily on desalinated water (which is costly both economically and in terms of energy expenditure) and the intensive usage of pesticides and fertilisers.


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Haley Swartz is a Research Program Coordinator for the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Haley researches food assistance programs and nutrition governance in developing and low and middle-income countries with Dr. Jessica Fanzo, Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Ethics & Global Food and Agriculture. Haley holds a Master of Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies and Government, both from the University of Virginia.

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