Childhood Obesity in the GCC

Responsibility for increasing obesity rates lies on parents, manufacturers and policy makers

According to the ‘Childhood Obesity in the GCC’ report, just released by the Ipsos Ethnography Center of Excellence in MENA, findings show that childhood obesity rates have reached epidemic proportions. Sustained socio-economic growth across the GCC has transformed the traditional Arab lifestyle, resulting in increasing health-related issues amongst children.

The report, based on extensive primary ethnographic research with young families in the UAE and KSA, which produced over 40 hours of film, finds that due to changing and predominantly sedentary lifestyles amongst children, parents are unknowingly contributing to fueling undesirable habits. Parents believe that ‘exercise trumps diet’, where children are given leeway to have unhealthy diets, if they take part in any form of exercise. In addition, findings show that parents consider food as ‘the currency of love’, with mothers in particular giving in to junk food requests, to maintain their connections with their children.

Murray Stanford, Head of Ethnography at Ipsos in MENA, headed the study in two main markets, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and highlighted key recurrent issues. “We find that there are common misconceptions amongst parents with regards to what ‘healthy’ means, as they exhibit behaviors that promote the opposite outcome,” said Stanford. “However, the responsibility extends to manufacturers and policy makers as well; there is a growing need-gap for healthy pre-packaged foods, as legislation slowly starts to dictate its necessity,” he added.

Children immersed in the digital world

The ‘Childhood Obesity in the GCC’ report sheds light on numerous factors that cause children to adopt unhealthy lifestyles. One predominant finding showed that increasingly harsh climates in the GCC, especially during the extended summer season, contribute to limited outdoor activities amongst children. The home is now seen as a ‘sanctuary’, one used for relaxation and sedentary activities, limiting any kind of physical activity. Moreover, due to the increased use of digital technology, be it smartphones, tablets, gaming devices or TVs, children are spending countless hours immersed in the virtual world – acting as a barrier to physical activities.

Digital media has created cultural changes when intermixed with children’s consumption practices. Children who spend an increased time spent in front of the screen, are more prone to continuous snacking without monitoring their intake.

Parents across the GCC also regard exercise as an activity that offsets healthy indulgences. Many children are rewarded with unhealthy food when they take part in physical activity, as a sign of love from their parents.

Changing homes, families no longer having meals together

Due to the frantic pace of life, GCC families rarely sit down together for a meal. In many cases, a formal dining table does not exist, therefore meals are no longer regarded as a time for families to bond. Instead, family members dine alone in front of the TV, which impacts portion control. The negative Impact of changing family dynamics is altering children’s social behavior with regards to their eating habits.

In addition, spatial dynamics of the traditional home are changing, with more and more families living in apartment buildings in urban settings. This further restricts a child’s ability to engage in physical activities at home. As a result, and given the lack of mandatory sporting participation at many schools, children must travel to recreational centers for exercise. This creates another challenge, due to limited freedom to movement amongst young women in GCC countries.

Many traditional foods overlooked as unhealthy

Parents in the GCC mainly identify unhealthy foods in their most obvious form, such as chips, chocolate, ice cream, fast food etc. Mothers are also unaware of the high sugar content of certain FMCG products such as artificial fruit juices. However, traditional Arabic products such as ma’moul, manakish and falafel, are wrongly perceived as healthy foods, despite their high caloric count.

In addition, a misguided assumption prevalent amongst parents, is that home-cooked food is necessarily healthy. Whilst parents are taking strides to use healthier ingredients in their meals, they do not control portions, as they take pleasure in seeing their children enjoy the food.

The ‘Childhood Obesity in the GCC’ report by the Ipsos Ethnography Center of Excellence in MENA, the first center of its kind in the region, highlights what parents, policy makers and manufacturers can do, to contribute to healthier lifestyles amongst children.

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