Essay: Obesity Among Adolescent Girls in Saudi Arabia

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Adolescent Obesity in Saudi Arabia

Obesity in Saudi Adolescent Girls

Obesity is a serious health problem in any population, but it is of special concern in younger individuals. The longer a person is obese, the longer that person has potentially to suffer the negative health consequences of being overweight or obese. Thus when children or adolescents are obese, this condition must be considered seriously both by the individuals themselves (as well as by their families) and by health professionals. Given that obesity increases the health costs associated with treating an individual, the concern should be one that affects an even wider audience, that of public health officials,

One of the costs that every national government must contend with in the twenty-first century is that of healthcare and one of the ways that governments can contain the costs associated with treating obesity-related health conditions. Obesity is an avoidable condition, and thus public health policy that reduces the overall occurrence of obesity can benefit national economies as well as bring substantial benefits to the individuals involved. Reducing obesity in adolescents reduces the chance that they will become burdened with the serious health conditions that are related to (and in most cases caused by) obesity such as diabetes, increased risk for heart disease, increased risk for a range of cancers.

At least as important, reducing the rates of obesity among young Saudi women will also have the highly significant benefit of reducing the psychological harm that may occur to girls whose self-concept is damaged when they fail to meet cultural standards of beauty. The psychological harm that overweight individuals suffer from cannot be underestimated and may lead to serious mental health illnesses such as clinical depression and a range of diseases connecting to elevated rates of anxiety (Dwyer et al., 1970).

Aim for Literature Review and Assessment of Research Methods

This paper surveys the literature on the current state of obesity in Saudi Arabian female adolescents. While obesity (especially among younger people) has long been considered a consequence of Western dietary and other lifestyle factors, this is no longer the case. Obesity levels are rising across the globe, in largest measure because so many people across the globe have adopted Western diets in whole or part. Another important factor in increasing obesity rates is increasing sedentariness, which is correlated in part with greater participation in electronic media.

There are also cultural elements that are specific to young women in the Gulf states. These include fewer opportunities to participate in sports than in the case in countries with different traditions concerning what is appropriate for girls and women to do. The environment is also not conducive to exercise during much of the year: The ambient temperature makes it very difficult to exercise outside, especially for girls and women who wish to dress modestly. Such a lack of exercise per se was not a significant problem when diets were more traditional. However, the combination of Western-style diets with the lack of exercise that accompanies modern life for most people has been a factor that has tended to increase the rates of obesity in young women.

The goal of this literature review is to examine the past research that has been done in this area and in particular to examine the ways in which Saudi governmental policy has focused on medical interventions to obesity. While there is certainly a medical aspect that should be considered and included in any public health approach to treating obesity, other aspects of personal health must be considered. Thus one of the aims of this literature review is to document the lack of attention that the Saudi government has paid to behavioral approaches to reducing obesity. Saudi public health programs have also been negligent in considering the ways in which social and cultural aspects of Saudi life affect obesity.

The research methods that have been used in most of the studies cited here have depended on the self-report of participants as regards their own body image, weight, and eating habits (Roberts 1995; Hill & Roberts 1998). Self-report data are certainly valid and can in many cases be the only practical way in which to gather the amount of data that will prove to be useful for making broader, more generalizable statements. However, relying on self-reported data does have limitations (the problems of reliability in terms of memory as well as the fact that there are often emotional distortions in self-reports on such issues (Stunkard & Albaum, 1981).

The research that I myself plan to do will compensate for these methodological gaps in the research so far. There will be more ethnographic observation included, and there will also be interviews with public health professionals to determine their understanding of both the problem of obesity and the way in which their modeling of the problem is linked (or not) to their proposed solutions.

Prevailing Themes in Existing Literature: Lifestyle and Habits

The percentage of young Saudi women who are either overweight or obese (which is a degree beyond being overweight) has risen in a relatively short period of time to what can be described as astonishing levels. Al Qauhiz (2010), for example, found that the rates of women who are overweight and obese females aged 18-74 years from are now 65.4% in the eastern region of the kingdom.

This study attempted to determine the reasons that the rate of obesity has risen so dramatically, but failed to come up with clear causes for weight increase. However, the study did find that three things were correlated with increased weight in women: Being married, having a family member who was also overweight or obese, and a high rate of consumption of aerated beverages were all associated with being overweight.

Abalkhail et al. (2002) found results similar to the above. This study, which examined the eating and exercise habits of both adolescent males and females, found that diet (not surprisingly) was the most important factor in predicting higher-than-healthy weight. The school dietary regime that was offered to the participants in this study was relatively effective in keeping weight within a healthy range. One of the key findings in this study was that the students (because of the school-instituted structure) were highly likely to eat breakfast, which is generally considered by nutritionists and other health professionals to be a key element of an overall healthy diet.

Away from such a regimented environment, Saudi women (as well as their counterparts in neighboring countries) have not been well served by their nations' rapid urbanization and modernization over the past half-century. The following study focused on women in the UAE, but the same conditions (both historical and in terms of public health) obtain in Saudi Arabia.

As Trainer (2010) notes, the changes in overall health and especially vis-a-vis obesity have been dramatic over the last two generations not only in Saudi Arabia but also in other nations in the region such as Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE. These nations now have some of the highest rates of obesity in the world, and thus also have some of the highest rates of the kinds of chronic diseases that are associated with obesity in the world (Trainer, 2010). Trainer also notes that while the obesity weight goes up in older women, there is also a significant problem in younger women. Beginning to gain weight as a younger woman is likely to lead to ever-increasing levels of obesity in older women.

The women in the above study have been affected by greater access to Western-style food, and especially to Western-style fast food, which is high in calories, fat, and sodium. They are also, like women across the world, affected by changes in work habits, which have tended to make them more sedentary that were their grandmothers, as well as changing ideas about body type.

Gender Inequality as a Factor in Obesity

The female subjects in many of these studies are more accepting of being overweight because so many of the women that they know are also overweight: The more overweight person that someone knows, the more "normal" that individual is likely to find being overweight. While this affects both males and females, it is more true for women. More women are overweight or obese (due mainly to cultural factors), and this tends to increase the "normalcy" of being overweight for other girls and women. This is an aspect of the public health problem that is not present in self-reported data.

This fact tends to reduce the impetus for individuals to attempt to lose weight and -- at least as important and serious -- tends to affect individuals' ability to assess risk. In a population in which many people are overweight, far more of those individuals (versus individuals in a population of primarily average-weight individuals) are likely to underestimate the risks associated with being overweight (Brooks-Gunn etal, 1997). There may also be an important cultural aspect to this fact of being overweight as well: Low self-esteem is linked to being overweight or obese. Given… [END OF PREVIEW]

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