Lisa was recently offered $30 to take part in a late-night, low-budget infomercial to say she had lost weight by taking the herbal supplement jojoba. Despite never having taken the supplement, Lisa was approached by the advertisers because she had an American accent that they thought would sound authoritative. She declined the offer.
With Lebanon facing a – literally – growing obesity problem that is being nourished by sedentary lifestyles and a proliferation of fatty fast food, having such advertisements promote misleading information to Lebanese who are eager to lose weight is problematic, and even dangerous, given the health risks associated with being overweight and taking pills without a doctor’s approval. With the diet industry in Lebanon expanding in tandem with waist sizes, aspects of it remain largely unregulated — raising the eyebrows of health professionals in the country.
Contrary to the stereotypical images of Lebanon as a weight- and beauty -conscious nation, the first study on overweight and obesity in the country found that most adults here are actually too heavy. A report published in 2003 by professors at the American University of Beirut found that 53% of adults aged 20 years and older were overweight, while 17% were obese, which means they are more than 20% heavier than their ideal weight. These figures are only slightly lower than rates seen in the United States, widely acknowledged as the fattest country on earth. And the situation doesn’t look much better for Lebanese youth. According to a 2005 study, more than one in five children aged between six and 19 are also too heavy, almost certainly setting them up for an overweight adulthood.
Co-author of both the 2003 and 2005 studies Nahla Hwala, a professor of nutrition and dean of the Faulty of Agricultural and Food Sciences at AUB, said that while obesity rates in Lebanon are frighteningly similar to those in the US, the incidences here aren’t as severe as in the States. And while she acknowledged that it is difficult to compare Lebanon with other regional countries because many lack credible nation-wide data, researchers do know that Lebanon “fares better than the Gulf,” with Kuwait, in particular, facing an epidemic in which approximately 40% of women are obese.
While violent deaths catch public attention – especially in Lebanon – obesity remains the nation’s silent killer, as it is an underlying factor in many chronic diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, the latter being a lead cause of death both in Lebanon and abroad. Treating these diseases places an expensive burden on the health system, and, as Hwala says, it is cheaper and more effective to emphasize prevention by encouraging awareness of the importance of a healthy diet at a young age than to treat overweight-related diseases once they have set in.
Traditional Lebanese food is “very healthy,” according to dietician Lama Lteif, noting that the Mediterranean diet has been hailed by doctors internationally because it includes plenty of beans, lentils, rice and vegetables, as well as healthy doses of olive oil. But reliance on this diet is being undermined as people don’t have time to prepare traditional food any more, she said. This has contributed to a shift toward a more Western diet, with fast food outlets particularly successful in attracting a younger clientele with their fatty and calorie-ridden fare. “Fast food is becoming a serious problem in Lebanon,” Lteif said, with its astronomical fat, sodium and sugar content acting as main contributing factors to obesity.
A lack of physical activity is also a reason why so many Lebanese, particularly children and adolescents, become overweight. Lteif says the Lebanese, like many across the world, are often “not aware of the importance of exercise, are not used to [doing] it and don’t have time.” She adds it is important to find both the willpower and time to exercise for at least 30 minutes, three times a week. While Lteif accepts there are not many public places for people to exercise, especially in Beirut, she recommends going to a gym or simply taking a walk outside.
Both Lteif and Hwala are concerned about the lack of publicly-available information regarding healthy diets and lifestyle. “Most people get information from magazines and television,” says Lteif. While qualified nutritionists do have morning slots on television and provide good dietary advice, Hwala says it is often difficult to differentiate between the scientific information they provide and advertising scams, such as the one that tempted Lisa. While she says the Health Ministry attempted to ban such advertisements, they continue.
“People should understand that there is no magic pill for weight problems,” Lteif concurred, strongly recommending against taking supplements without first consulting a doctor or dietician. To counter the spread of misinformation, Hwala has developed a set of 14 dietary guidelines. While not yet published, they inform people which food groups are beneficial and which should be avoided. She would also like to see physical activity introduced into the school curriculum and for the Ministry of Health to help raise awareness of healthy eating habits.
Health Watchers is one of a number of businesses that have emerged to help people tackle the problem of unhealthy weight gain. Health Watchers manager Joumana Asly calls the facility, located in Tabaris in Achrafieh, a “diet and health center” and says the majority of its clients are looking to lose weight. The Health Watchers center provides consultations with qualified dieticians, who organize tailor-made calorie-controlled meals to be delivered to the customer’s door. This service comes at a price, however, with the initial consultation costing $40 and the full-meal package, including breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack, setting customers back $145 a week. Other centers in Beirut have similar offers.
Asly justifies the price because she says the program teaches important nutritional information and helps clients lose weight in a healthy way. “They learn how to eat healthily, since they take on our good habits and learn how much to eat,” she said, as the center encourages correct portioning and a balanced diet that includes all food groups. Asly says this information is particularly important for the center’s child clients, who can be as young as 12 years old, as people should be introduced to healthier diets as early as possible. “Overweight younger people, they need to learn how to eat,” she explained.
While Lteif is concerned that diet centers, like Health Watchers, do not teach people to cook healthy food themselves, only selling premade meals, she is pleased they provide nutritional information and counseling. Despite the cost involved, Lteif recommends that people with weight-related problems visit a dietician, because “it is cheaper than going to a doctor later on.”