The socio-economic problem of obesity in Egypt

Rising obesity rates are often blamed on a general lack of awareness of proper and balanced diets and healthy lifestyles.
Sunday 27/01/2019
Unhealthy habits. A woman eats at a fast food restaurant in Damanhour.
Unhealthy habits. A woman eats at a fast food restaurant in Damanhour.

CAIRO - Obesity is no longer a symptom of just gluttony, unbalanced diets, fast-food addiction and lack of physical activity because of changes in lifestyles and living conditions. In societies in crisis, obesity is a symptom of social, psychological, economic and political problems.

The issue of obesity in Egypt became the topic of public debate when, a few weeks ago, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said he noticed the prevalence of weight gain among Egyptians and criticised the phenomenon.

A survey of the Egyptian society in the framework of the “100 Million Health” initiative revealed that about 25% of the population exhibited normal weight while the rest suffer from obesity and overweight. Sisi asked: “Why are we doing this to ourselves?”

Many did not appreciate the president’s tone and others tried to give it a political twist. However, the matter is serious and dangerous and the government bears the biggest share of the blame.

Egypt is a country where most citizens receive enough food to silence their hunger but not enough to nourish their bodies. It is inevitable that the phenomenon would negatively affect society and the country’s development.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine pointed out that 19 million Egyptians are obese, accounting for 35% of the adult population, the highest rate in the world. Among children, 3.6 million (10.2%) are obese. The study was conducted two years ago and obesity rate must have increased, given that the severity of the crises gripping Egypt has grown.

The top cause of obesity in Egypt is not related only to food. Dietary insufficiencies are superseded by other reasons related to living conditions and to the low quality of ingredients making up the diet of most Egyptians. Government policies and unstable political conditions play a role in producing this phenomenon.

Sociologist Huda Zakaria said binging and weight gain have psychological dimensions because food is one of the easiest means for humans to escape their problems, pains and psychological and emotional traumas.

Zakaria said there are many studies indicating that “the proportion of obesity increases among those who face difficult social and economic problems, such as stress produced by price hikes, political repression, death and separation, delayed marriages and other multiple life crises.”

Zakaria added that fighting obesity in Egypt “requires a clear plan, coordinated efforts and a balanced and enlightened media discourse that can seduce the various social classes because, scientifically, obesity is not a symptom of excessive eating or a sign of abundance. It can be caused by malnutrition or, more specifically, bad nutrition.”

Rising obesity rates are often blamed on a general lack of awareness of proper and balanced diets and healthy lifestyles, not to mention the lack of a culture of engaging in physical activities among Egyptians in general.

Reactions to such observations often point to this contradiction: in a country where half the population is poor, how will these people find the time and the luxury of affording healthy food and exercise? Most Egyptians spend their waking time toiling to provide enough food for their children, food that is rich in calories but low on nutrients. They don’t have the luxury of enjoying public parks, let alone sports facilities because they are none in their neighbourhoods.

Sawsan Mustapha, a woman in her late 20s, said that “popular and unhealthy dishes and foods are cheap and readily available. If we want to educate Egyptians about food and change their eating habits, we must first provide healthy ingredients that are affordable to the whole population.”

The World Health Organisation has shown a link between obesity and poverty. In Egypt, obesity is often behind chronic death-causing diseases.

Samia al-Sa’ati, professor of sociology at Ain Shams University in Cairo, said obesity has serious social repercussions that threaten both the wealthy and the poor. Obese children are often victims of bullying at school and obese adults often find difficulties in securing jobs. Obesity has been cited as a cause for divorce and spinsterhood.

Although there are no documented studies of the rates of divorce caused by the obesity of one of the partners, it has been estimated that at least 10% of divorces in Egypt are due to obesity. In 2017, there were 250,000 divorces in Egypt.

In the eyes of Egyptian officials, obesity will, unfortunately, remain a problem looking for solutions because they have nothing to offer citizens besides urging them to eat less to alleviate the economic crisis.

The government is used to throwing the ball to the people to shirk its responsibility to provide decent living conditions. However, there is no escaping the burden of being responsible for the general health of the population because this matter falls within considerations of the country’s national security.