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Reversing the fast-food track to obesity

As a young girl in Dubai pounded the treadmill, she felt a distressing, foreign feeling. ‘Miss, something is happening to my heart,’ she told her teacher, Carly Vlckova. The health and physical education instructor at Dubai Women’s College is no stranger to such statements. When most of her students step into an exercise class, it’s the first formal fitness activity they’ve ever done, so a rise in heart rate can be a genuine shock.

Canada-born Vlckova runs a 17-week general health and personal training course. It was developed after a former director of the college had serious concerns about the health of this new generation and made the subjects mandatory.

Her priority is teaching young women that they’re fast-tracking preventable lifestyle diseases such as diabetes by making poor diet choices and leading sedentary lives. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 13.5 per cent of the UAE population was diabetic in 2000 and had the second highest prevalence of the disease in the world. That figure will rise to 19.3 per cent by 2030, the WHO predicts.

In the seven years that Vlckova has been running the course, there has been a slow shift in attitude from students who are aged between 18 and 23. ‘The girls are into Hollywood movies and they want to get in better shape,’ she observes. Despite that, Vlckova says she always faces resistance initially. ‘We don’t want to be here, we think this is ridiculous,’ is the usual feedback. However, with a little coaxing, they begin to see the benefits.

Emiratis traditionally ate lamb, meat, rice, dates, camel milk and fish, but when the UAE started exporting oil in 1962, it became an economic powerhouse, triggering an influx of Westerners who brought their culture – and fast food – with them.

Deakin University’s nutrition expert, Professor Tim Crowe, says extreme dietary swings influenced by Western culture are not restricted to the UAE. ‘Health declines and obesity rates climb in developed countries where cheap, high-fat foods are ubiquitous.’ He suggests that minimally processed, plant-based food is the cornerstone of any healthy diet, but says enforcing these standards is hard in many countries including Australia and the US.

'Health declines and obesity rates climb in developed countries where cheap, high-fat foods are ubiquitous.'

Professor Tim Crowe,
Deakin University

Extreme wealth in the UAE has lead to an unhealthy freedom of choice and people can afford to avoid the kitchen all together, so choosing to cook a fresh meal is rare at best. ‘Most of the students don’t know how to fry an egg,’ Vlckova says and explains that maids will cater to every request. ‘If they want to have chocolate for breakfast, they do. They have no one keeping them accountable.’

In addition, the social acceptability of overindulging in fast food is a recipe for obesity. ‘People here eat out 12 to 13 times per week,’ Vlckova adds. The battle to change young Emiratis’ attitudes towards their health is not insurmountable, she says. The nation’s ruler, Sheik Mohammed, has a significant influence. ‘He exercises every single day. His family is doing a lot of things to raise awareness of the importance of exercise,’ Vlckova explains.

Sheik Mohammed’s son, Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed, runs the annual Dubai Fitness Championship. The event, now in its fourth year, has helped to build some hype around sport. With big cash prizes on hand, there’s a strong incentive for Emiratis to pull on their sneakers and get moving.

Vlckova will soon complete her Master of Health Promotion through Deakin University’s cloud learning platform and has developed a new course in nutrition for the girls, which launches at Dubai Women’s College in September 2016. Students will gain a comprehensive understanding of what healthy food is, why it matters and how to cook balanced meals. She knows she’s up against the fast food corporations that have made eating out a national pastime, but hopes that by the end of the course her students will see the value in ditching the burgers and preparing meals that ‘have a rainbow’ of nutritious components.

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Professor Tim Crowe
Professor Tim Crowe

Nutrition Academic, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University
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